By John Kendall Hawkins
Those Ancient Men of Genius who rifled Nature by the Torch-Light of Reason even to her very Nudities, have been run a-ground in this unknown Channel; the Wind has blown out the Candle of Reason, and left them all in the Dark.
Daniel Defoe, The Storm (1704)
When author James Dunkerley tells would-be readers of Crusoe and his Consequences that the first thing they should do before reading his book is re-visit Defoe’s castaway saga, I let out a groan. Such re-reading is a sensible approach. But I never got over the many troubling questions I was left with after making my way through the thick underbrush of Defoe’s prose some 30 years ago in an undergraduate course called Adventure: Art and Literature.
Consider this: Over the many decades, Robinson Crusoe has been transmogrified from the lurid tale of selfishness, hypocrisy, insistent self-destructiveness, emotional shallowness, and so on, into a work of self-reliance and “rugged individualism.” What I remember about Crusoe, at my peril, are unresolved questions and the nagging feeling that I was being pushed to celebrate a literary asshole. (What, I thought, I should read Justine next and see heroism?)
Crusoe is from the beginning neither a father-fearing nor a God-fearing son; there’s nothing Byronic about him (he doesn’t have Don Juan’s libido); and while he sees an early near-drowning at sea as a sign of God’s wrath for his insubordination, a night of swashbuckling tankard-tipping sea-chantey drunkenness at the local tavern drowns his imploration to God, the Latter’s warning lost in the morning-after wreckage of his hangover. He’s a hopeless, faithless sinner, and he knows it. He tells us, “[W]e went the old way of all sailors; the punch was made, and I was made drunk with it, and in that one night’s wickedness I drowned all my repentance, all my reflections upon my past conduct, and all my resolutions for the future.”
So many questions: To make the ‘self-isolationist’ Crusoe an admirable “rugged individualist,” we have to conveniently forget his intersections with slavery. Following his aforementioned hangover, Crusoe sails again into sudden stormy seas and gets taken into slavery by a boorish Moorish pirate off Sallee (Morocco). He escapes, after two years, with the help of a boy named Xury; who he sells, (after conning Xury’s help with, “If you will be faithful to me, I will make you a great man…”) essentially as a slave, to a Portuguese captain on his way to Brazil, who shows Crusoe God’s kindness, and gets him to the New World, where he sets up a very successful colonial tobacco plantation. He pretends to be a Papist to collect the cash.
Middle Way style, Crusoe gets bored shitless after a few years of hardly earned success (and, incidentally, never writes home to Ma and Pa to say he’s still alive), signs on to a conspiracy with fellow planters to import slaves — through the so-called Atlantic Middle Passage — from Africa. (The same Africa from which he and Xury barely escaped in terror.) On his fateful journey, God shoots another warning across his moral bow (i.e., his ship sinks in another storm and he’s the sole soul survivor) and washes him up on his bespoke fatal ashore, which he later refers to as “the Island of Despair” — not a Hell so much as a Purgatory full of all the material trappings of the Middle Class he rejected.
Let’s recall that, in a series of raft trips to and from the grounded ship, the stranded Crusoe manages to salvage just about every possible useful item from the fully laden ship. He rescues “the seamen’s chests…filled with provisions…bread, rice, three Dutch cheeses, five pieces of dried goat’s flesh…cordial waters…five or six gallons of sack…two or three bags full of nails and spikes, a great screwjack, a dozen or two of hatchets…a grindstone…two or three iron crows…muskets… powder more…all the men’s clothes…a spare fore-topsail, hammock, and some bedding…small ropes and rope twine…spare canvas…a great hogshead of bread, and three large runlets of rum or spirits, and a box of sugar, and a barrel of fine flour…” And that’s just after three of the dozen trips he made.
His Island of Despair has goats, seals, penguins, tortoises, fowl, eggs and, of course, fish. His fields are fecund and willing partners in his myriad agricultural schemes that gladly yield the corn, barley, and rice that fire up his quarantine quest to make loaves of multi-grain bread. Domesticated goats provide “two gallons of milk” per day. The island trees and vines are falling over themselves to provide bananas, grapes, cocoa, coconuts, mangoes….He builds a fenced-in “fortress,” his main abode, but has two other retreats on remote parts of the island, as well as his “apartment in the tree.”
At one point, he gets sleepy after smoking “tobacco,” which suggests it could be wacky tobacky. (The Portuguese were profligate slavers, and dagga-smoking was widespread among Africans.) He wakes up and finds himself a jack of all trades: he’s a potter; a farmer; an iron smith; a housebuilder; a boat builder. He’s the ship’s dog and two cats. And, many years later, when he nabs Friday, after the latter manages to barely (and nakedly) escape from cannibals, he’s got himself a slave again. You “Friday,” Me “Master,” he tells the dinner escapee, who probably felt like he’d gone from the pot (which Crusoe has plenty of) into the fire. Poor Friday, cracker want another polly. What more could a Middle Class man want?
Still, we seem content dealing with updated versions of Crusoe; okay with seeing him as an inspiring “rugged individualist,” or Republican (or, these days, even a Joe Biden Democrat), stripped of moral meat by a form of censorship that turns the story into pablum for young minds, such as in the 1918 Educational Publishing Company version titled, An American Robinson Crusoe for American Boys and Girls, which begins, “There once lived in the city of New York, a boy by the name of Robinson Crusoe.” Why bother re-reading the original 18th century novel, with its difficult English, political and social concerns we find it hard to relate to, religious intensity we can’t fathom, and a “hero” some find difficult to like?
In Crusoe and His Consequences, Dunkerley performs a kind of stock-taking of the tale after 300 years, and concedes that Crusoe’s character can seem “unedifying,” especially his post-Island return to England, where he spends no time remembering his long-dead parents, and is quick to go abroad again (by sea) after his wife dies suddenly. Crusoe’s young children are fobbed off in the process. It “[makes] you wonder,” Dunkerley wrote in a private email, “if Defoe is setting [Crusoe] and us up.” It’s true, a thoughtful re-reading of the ‘parable’ will make you wonder if Defoe is not pulling your leg.
Dunkerley divides Crusoe and His Consequences into two sections: “Crusoe” and “Defoe.” “Crusoe” is essentially a synopsis of the novel, and “Defoe” is a critical biographical appraisal of the author. Dunkerley makes it clear that his book is not an advanced academic study; there is plenty of scholarly analysis out there already. (Even Marx has a go in Das Kapital.) But Dunkerley proposes a literate person’s guide to a review of what is widely regarded as the first English “realist” novel. Dunkerley is interested in discovering “why a narrative text that is in so many ways a dreadful mess has come to be ‘a classic’, not just in literary terms but in those of economics (‘political arithmetick’), politics, and popular culture as well.”
As his simple book partition suggests, Dunkerley wants to separate Crusoe from his author. The simplest way to do that is to remind the reader that Defoe went on to write three other novels, widely regarded as masterpieces: Moll Flanders, Roxana, and A Journal of the Plague. He is by no means a one-trick literary pony. In addition, Dunkerley describes Defoe as “the first professional journalist.” He was a ferocious, energetic journo, who was deeply ensconced in the politics of the time. Like his contemporary Jonathan Swift, Defoe operated his own newspaper, The Review, the reportage and commentary of which became the catalyst for coffeehouse talk. (Coffeehouses helped expand the ‘public sphere’ and created locales for the dissemination of ideas — old and new.)
Dunkerley points out that Defoe “as a journalist…set about his new trade in an innovative and engaging manner,” including, for instance, in his accounts of the Great Storm of November 1703, which is described, in the introduction to Defoe’s The Storm, as still “the worst storm in British history…An extratropical cyclone of unusual ferocity,” Defoe used “eyewitness accounts of the experience of the tempest.” Previously it had been Voice of God reporting on secondary accounts. The Storm, along with an account of Scottish privateer Alexander Selkirk’s real-life experience as a castaway on an uninhabited island from 1704-09, were inspiration for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
To comprehend Defoe more deeply we have to remember that he lived during The Age of Enlightenment, which followed, after a while, from the Dark Ages. He grew up in a time of great natural disasters, not only experiencing the Great Storm, but he was also grew up during the Great Plague of London (1665-6), which killed an estimated 100,000 people, and that was followed, a year later, by the Great Fire of London, which destroyed approximately 70% of London, including, writes Dunkerley, “ninety churches.”
Dunkerley also does a good job engaging the reader in the political milieu of Defoe’s time. The American Constitution (just down the historical road) calls for a separation of Church and State — don’t mix them, don’t talk about them at dinner: things get thrown and overthrown. Dunkerley brings to life the dynamism of battles between Protestants and Catholics, in their various guises, as they fought over thrones and creeds. Game of Thrones live. Out of this mess of politicking came notions of absolute power. But Defoe defied such postures. As Dunkerley writes “[Defoe was] against the divine right of kings, against the doctrine of passive obedience, and against absolutism,” and he fought against it all, in his fiction and journalism and political activities.
Americans would appreciate Defoe’s detestation for the 1% of his time, and the way justice favored the monied. Dunkerley writes, “the power and practice of the upper classes were such that they were always treated more leniently than the poor man,” which enraged Defoe: “These are all cobweb laws in which the small flies are catched, and the great ones break through.” Defoe knew poverty. He had been “broken” (declared bankrupt) twice, and “the experience of bankruptcy had been so traumatic that it reappeared many times in his writing on economic and commercial matters.” Dunkerley added, significantly, “Bankruptcy, in short, is a shipwreck.” (Indeed, Defoe,despite all of his literary success,ended up in hiding from creditors and dying alone.)
But he got into more serious hot water when he virtually lampooned the upper classes in his 1250-line poem, “The True Born Englishman: A Satyr,” in which he took the mickey out of the mousey elites by pointing out their debauched beginnings:
. . . These are the Heroes that despise the Dutch,
And rail at new-come Foreigners so much;
Forgetting that themselves are all deriv’d
From the most Scoundrel Race that ever liv’d.
And on and on it goes, pushing the envelope of the times’ “acceptable rhetoric.” Dunkerley goes to gauge response to the poem: “Even those who despised his prolixity, lack of gentility, and whiggish convictions recognised its power, which stands up pretty well in the age of UKIP, the DUP, and Brexit.”
Later, he would enrage Queen Anne when he opposed her edicts of religious intolerance. Dunkerley observes,
Defoe mostly got into trouble—serious trouble threatening judicial execution as well as vigilante violence—over religious matters and their political implications. So, although the doctrinal landscape of over three hundred years ago is complex as well as alien, we do have to recognise that it was just as important to those living at the time as, say, Brexit or Trump are today.
Defoe’s The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters; or Proposals for the Establishment of the Church was so ill-received by so many that he was forced to go on the lam for months.
After he was finally caught, he was tried for sedition and sentenced to the pillory. He was also forbidden from mouthing against the monarchy for 7 years. He responded by writing “a defiant poem, even before he entered the stocks, breaking within days the sentence of seven years’ dutiful compliance.” The sentence was deemed so harsh that public sentiments turned in his favor, and, writes Dunkerley, “According to legend, it was fresh flowers, not eggs and tomatoes, that were thrown in symbolic repudiation of the law.”
Defoe was not only a master novelist and in the vanguard of real journalism, he also even penned a little-known science fiction story titled, “The Consolidator.” Dunkerley raves,
The images in the story are extraordinarily innovative, involving communication between China and the moon, where there exists a species of lunar telepathy, a truth-revealing telescope, ‘elevators’ that enabled communion with departed souls, and a lie-detecting chair.
So, it’s clear that Defoe was a leading edge literary figure, and a political dynamo.
In addition, he’s regarded as a pioneering “feminist” writer for his portrayal of heroines Moll Flanders and Roxana. No less than the darling of academic feminism, Virginia Woolf, praised him vociferously:
On any monument worthy the name of monument the names of Moll Flanders and Roxanna, at least, should be carved as deeply as the name of Defoe. They stand among the few English novels which we can call indisputably great.
So, even if Crusoe ends up, in a revaluation, falling short of real “rugged individualism,” Defoe himself, a complex character in a complex time, lived up to his own hype.
Crusoe and his Consequences is a short, engaging read that is full of all kinds of interesting details of Daniel Defoe’s life and times, and how they become the background of Robinson Crusoe’s odyssey. There are also tantalizing streams of information that you sometimes do double-takes over, such as when Dunkerley relates that “as Warden of the Mint, Isaac Newton ordered at least a dozen executions of clippers and counterfeiters following the recoinage of 1696.” Oy, what a fig that Newton was!
Again, there have been so many versions of Robinson Crusoe produced over the last three centuries that it has sprouted its own literary genre: Robinsonade. From children’s retellings in Europe and America, to novels, poems, video games, films and TV series based on Crusoe or its themes (Luis Bunuel’s Crusoe, Tom Hanks’ Castaway, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and even Gilligan’s Island), they all enact aspects of concern a castaway faces in his or her new found self-isolation. Among the Robinsonade concerns are: progress through technology; the rebuilding of civilisation; economic achievement; hostile nature. Some of these are contemporary concerns as well. We are currently facing hostile nature (and, maybe soon enough, civilization will need rebuilding).
Dunkerley suggests that in our re-reading of Crusoe we put away the Little Boy/Little Girl glasses we were handed in class as kids, and read the parable, as literate adults, with new eyes, for the first time. Maybe you’ll still see it the same old way, or maybe you’ll go the way of the comical master-slave dialectical movie version, Man Friday, and hope it ends differently for the colonial slaver.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a second visibility.
- Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind
The opening line of “No Makeup,” the fourth poem in Sharon Olds’ new collection, Arias, chuckled me up some: “Maybe one reason I do not wear makeup is to scare people.” It’s funny, has a political edge, and gets you naughtily thinking about all the people out there hiding behind masks. (I saw a girl the other day and wondered whether all those Broadway layers of foundation, BB cream, highlighter and mascara were necessary to serve me up an Italian spuckie at Subway.) Olds’ engaging humor always leads you toward an edgy question, like: Makeup for what?
Olds, former winner of the Pulitzer and T.S. Eliot prizes for poetry (and short-listed for the 2019 T.S. Eliot prize for Arias), is in a fine fettle here. Mixing up memory and desire, but with nothing wasted, her humane, savvy, lyrical takes on ordinary experiences, that often exist somewhere between the concrete and abstract, are thoroughly enthralling, and often movingly accessible.
Born in 1942, Olds spent her early childhood in the Bay Area before being sent East to the Dana Halls School in Massachusetts. She did her undergraduate work at Stanford and earned her PhD at Columbia University in 1972. According to the biographical information at poetryfoundation.org, she grew up a “hellfire Calvinist,” which seems to have had a significant effect on her psychosexual development and later personal mythopoesis. She has lived in New York City for decades.
Olds has been called a “confessional” poet, in the mold of Sylvia Plath or even Emily Dickinson, but it’s not like that: confessional poets are often stuck in a personal past that can strain an empathetic read; Plath, for instance, had a Nazi Daddy thing to resolve — which she did, in the end, with gas. But Olds, for all her mother-meted (and metered) childhood abuse, survives with witty and strange ontological bursts of insight. She puts her head into gas clouds of life-affirming atoms. She never strains empathy, but seems to produce new streams of it.
She’s also too hip to be darkly backward: she’s tuned in to the Now and Future, politically, sexually, intellectually, and poetically. Her poem, “My Godlessness,” fits right in with the virtueless times we live in. Surprisingly, and anti-confessionally, she writes:
My mother beating me was not the source
of my godlessness. The source was not
the rape and murder of my classmate, or the rapes
and murders of our fellow citizens.
It was not earth, or water, or air.
Instead, perhaps envisioning Trump and the DC circus forever intown, she writes: “The source of my godlessness was cruelty / and abuse of power, its minions were like the / flame-headed one roaring now / from the pulpit, the orange-haired extinctor.”
Arias contains six parts: Meeting A Stranger, Arias, Run Away Up, The New Knowing, Elegies, and First Child. This gives some of the game away, but there’s more. I like to think of the collection as an opera, loose, decentralized, postmodern, but full of arias — 38 of them to be exact — and leitmotifs (“My mother beat me in 4/4 time” being the main one), finely executed music, sexual tension (and colorful release), and it’s a collection that features beginnings, middles and ends. An opera, but more Tommy than Rigoletto. And Olds is a diva from birth to death in these poems.
There are many strands and streams of themes that run through the river of Olds’ work. In Arias, she has many poems about dealing with strangers, human self-destructiveness, sexuality, motherhood, and the brilliant flashes of a personal pantheism. All that in addition to paeans to language, love, and social awareness. Where to begin an appreciation …
Early in the collection, Olds conjures up a familiar remembrance of the confusion and horror of the WTC towers coming down. Suddenly, there is that image of white dust and smoke coming at you like a billowing fog monster, people running for cover. In “Looking South at Lower Manhattan, Where the Towers Had Been,” the poet in Olds wants to make sense of the horror and panic, but stops herself:
…if you see me starting to talk about
something I know nothing about,
like the death of someone who’s a stranger to me,
step between me and language.
She observes: “oxygen, carbon, hydrogen” and the “sacred ashes / of strangers,” coming at the onlookers — at you, me. The in-your-face failure of humanity.
But there is humor, too (sorta), in these transactions with strangers. At the airport, in “Departure Gate Aria,” she imagines herself at the airport as a “guardian spirit,” who comes across a beclouded woman with sandals and engages her in conversation just long enough to praise how her sandals complement the woman’s garments and soul: “You look / beautiful and good,” she says, and watches the clouds disappear from the woman’s face. The poet is chuffed and thinks:
I bustled off—
so this is what I’ll do, now,
instead of kissing and being kissed, I’ll
go through airports praising people, like an
Antichrist saying, You do not need
to change your life.
Spoken like a true hell-fired up Calvanist on a comical mission from God.
And stepping back, as the poet must, she observes in “8 Moons,” the human condition, its continued dissociation (One thinks: “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.” T.S. Eliot), even into the 21st century, she considers:
We can’t imagine the length of time
it took to make the universe.
And the death of the earth—for most of us,
unimaginable, and therefore
A failure of vision so deep it represents a black hole in consciousness where even the brightest lights of our species must inevitably perish.
Sharon Olds is known for going to poetic places where other more angelic types fear to tread — like the joy of sexuality — as if it only belonged on TV in, say, Sex and the City, but must get itself to a nunnery in poetic form. Olds mocks this notion immediately in “Breaking Bad Aria,” when she imagines why the shifty Heisenberg (Walter White) resonates with men: “he gets sexually aroused by / cooking meth and having / killed someone, it excites him so much he fucks /
harder than he has ever fucked—” Later in the poem, she has her own quake: “What was arousing, to me, / for three decades, was faithfulness, the / chains of orgasms extreme beyond violent /in safety.” She never lost her faith.
In “Gliss Aria” she celebrates the bliss she’s had with the gliss of her lower lips, although, she writes, “sometimes I have left them untouched, / so they cannot sing, yet they’ve been sweet to me, / liquidy, sleek, lissome, with some / faint fragrance of salted nectar.” At other times it’s more about the music, as when she carts some LPs with her over to her lover’s place and gets laid for the first time:
—my body which had hardly been touched,
even through my clothes—to be that passive
verb, with flowered in it, by a light-shedding
laughing man who seemed to not love
anyone, like a god.
Her erotic mythopoesis at work. Her caesuras opening like orchidal maneuvers in the dark.
Some of my favorite sections of her work in Arias comes in the joie de vivre and humor of her baby poems. In “Objective Permanence Aria,” Olds imagines that first self-conscious moment of delightful other-being: “What a moment it was, in my life, when my mother / would leave the room, and I knew she still /existed! I was connected to that giant /flower on legs, that huge human / bee, even when the evidence of her / was invisible to me.” In “My First Two Weeks,” the baby drolly ‘recalls’ “I lived in a collective, / a commune of newborns” and, as for her relationship to Mom, “I commandeered those teats!” Oh, sweet liebfraumilch!
But such Blakean songs of innocence are more than balanced out by her songs of experience in a childhood of beatings at the hands of her mother. Her many arias in the collection provide a leitmotif that provide a dramatic tension, as it were, a sense that the trauma is unresolved. You read a few poems after a beating, and move on to readings that delve into depths elsewhere and then — bam! — there she is again, in “Waist Aria,” this ghost-child being told,
Young lady—go up and wait for me
with your clothes off, below the waist—
Over and over again, these words cry out from the page unexpectedly, at first, until the 4/4 time becomes the scene of a crime the poet must return to or die in.
Because of Olds’ ardent love for her mother, she keeps searching for answers in the poetry of her pain. In “I Do Not Know If It Is True, but I Think,” the poet introduces the musical pathology she shares with her mother, as if the mother, too, found release in rhyme and time:
My mother beat me to the meter of “Onward,
Christian Soldiers.” She speeded up
the tempo which dragged, in church—Slow-ly
On-ward Bo-ring Chris-tian Sol-diers—
and she got to give pain, maybe the same
pain her mother had given her
and her mother’s mother had given her mother
The violent hairbrush passed on like an heirloomed musical instrument for use on her behind.
She is beaten because her mother wanted a boy, pre-named Timothy, and, instead, much to the mother’s dismay, a girl emerged out of the pain and quagmire of birth. In “Timothy Aria,” Olds writes, “I had been a star, / for a while, and I did not forget that I’d been / held, once, at some length, in passionate regard.” She holds the moment like a changeling, taking simple succor in the fact that her mother can love. In “Cold Tahoe Today,” the poet sub-merges with elements and goes to watery places: “I was an agate hunter, /a diver for transparent stone. / It meant so much to me to be / entirely inside that liquid world—” because there “No one could hit you, in there, no one could / pull their arm back fast enough / to strike.”
Several lovely poems are devoted to the release of her trauma after her mother dies. She tends, with her sister, to her mother’s pain-driven last hours from this realm in “Morphine elegy.” She becomes mother to her mother in “Dawn Song,” laying to rest a woman never at home in the world with these words, “And I want to say, to my / mother, my journeying laborer /who wandered here, with me in her hobo /sack—I want to put her to sleep / like an exhausted animal. Sleep, baby, / Sleep.”
My favorite poems from this collection have to do with Olds’ keen sense of existence seen not merely as anthropocentric, but as pantheistic: there is a sense of identifiable godliness in everything around us. Spinoza’s Ethics came to mind at first. But Olds’ is a pantheism that is devoid of moral authority; there is no guiding god; ours is a teleology of our own making. Nevertheless, there is a divine force identifiable in everything — right down to the molecular level. We interpenetrate each other, breath in each other’s dust, and ripple the fabric of creation when we exhale gases. Carl Sagan once said we are “star stuff,” composed literally of the same stuff as stars, and that opens up a whole new way of seeing existence.
These phenomenological poems include “Her Birthday As Ashes In Seawater,”
where her mother’s ashes have been dispersed, leaving “ —her nature unknowable, dense, / dispersed, her atomization a miracle.” She is part of the sea and the sea is part of the galaxy and the galaxy is part of — at least one of the universes. A reminder that when we scale up, anthropocentrism doesn’t fare well.
“My Parents’ Ashes (New York City, October, 2001)” returns the reader to the earlier Manhattan poem, written not long after 9/11, when the acrid dust of bones and buildings was still in the air, holding memory in place. It evokes an image of her parents’ ashes dispersed 3000 miles away in the Bay. Her evocation produces:
Maybe a molecule of her
has lain beside a molecule
of him, or interpenetrated
it, an element of her matter
bonding to an element of his
the currents carry them
back and forth under the Golden Gate.
Olds’ caesuras move back and forth with and against the current, her rhythms and imagery, stretching into the diaphanous reaches of language’s primordial brine. Returning to a place of object impermanence.
For Olds, these interpenetrations of being can be playful and funny, too, as in “Animal Crackers,” where she pokes fun at the notion of transubstantiation:
I ate Christ, and the bunny,
I want a Levine matzoh, I want
Dickinson by her own recipe,
and Keats, bright oatmeal brooch.
Pagan cannibalism; ingesting the other; incorporating the power. Or, as the philosopher Lennon said, I am You as You are Me and We are all Together-er-er.
Like most poets, especially of Olds’ calibre, intertextuality has significant influences — she’s read everybody; it can be difficult to discern her responses to other poets’ language. There’s some Plath, but only in an anti-Plath way; I sense Dickinson somehow in her caesuras and maybe in the loneliness at the core of her ostensible extraversion; but, in at least one poem, “Cervix Aria,” I hear Blake:
When I held a snapdragon gently by its jaws
and squeezed, so they opened, it was as if
the volt at the hinge of the maw of the blossom leaped
open at the same instant as the glug!
at the core of my body
We almost knew this, at five, four,
three—when we saw the truth of beauty,
our body, abashed, gulped.
I’d give her Pulitzer Prize, too, for that.
“Cervix Aria” is a poem that could probably go far in summing up the aim of this collection. We come into the world already full of the knowledge we will spend our lives seeking — through education, socialization — and we talk each other out of wisdom, our common language is also our common ignorance. We can only approximate each other’s being. And that we do through the poetry of love.
Poetry should be heard, they say, and not just be a product of textuality, of you performing in your own mind, but listening to the actual voice of an Other, hearing the tiny resin-driven flaws as the bow creates music out of friction. Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is a rage of flaws driven to perfection. Olds can be heard reading her from ouvre at Poets.Org, site of the Academy of American Poets, where Olds has previously held the Chancellorship.
It’s always a wise thing for an avid reader, especially of politics these days, to take a break, step away from keyboard, hands in the air, and reconnect with metaphorical language, preferably away from the madding crowd, wandering lonely as a cloud somewhere. Go and listen. To your thoughts. And sing.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
– William Wordsworth, “The World is Too Much With Us”
To Hell with the MIddle Class!
Oh, wait. They’re already there. At least that’s what David Roediger argues in his new book The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History. There is no there there worth saving. Fuck it.
What is it even? One minute it’s this, another minute it’s that. Did you ever notice, all couched up on the sofa, watching Titanic that there’s all kinds of talk of the upper classes in the upper berths and the lower classes in the lower earths, blueblood English atop and Derry brogues below, but there’s no sign or mention of the middle class. It’s like there isn’t one on the ship. Unless it was supposed to be hungry artist Leo and slumming romancer Kate coming and coming together, all compromised midship.
Or, maybe the middle class is, like, Dylan sitting at home watching the movie, inspired to write a song about it, that doesn’t mention the 1% or the 99% or any percent of class at all. Fuck, he doesn’t even mention the iceberg. Or maybe the middle class is the viewer, the disappearing act between, a kind of choral commentator on the real action, a buffer between the Haves and Nots, sinking in the Corinthian leather sofa bought on credit at a 22% interest rate, while some generic ship-of-state sinks into the nameless sea.
Roediger has a go at the whole lot. He unpacks history to interrogate the baggage carried. He brings in pollsters and shysters and the Bushes and Clintons and Obamas to make sense of how the term ‘middle class’ is used to con people into voting. He consults surveys, the Fortune in men’s eyes as they view their post-war future lifestyles. He talks about old-timey working class types, the butler and milkmaid and the milkman who ran off with your mother (haben sie liebfraumilch?). He gives us Marx snarks, amorphous masses and shape-shifting shibboleths, anodynes and literary anecdotes, Trump’s deplorables and other basket cases, and hints at the revolution ahead when we let the middle class go fall, fell, fallen. Fuck it, let’s face reality together.
Roediger is a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He has a long history of critical thinking and compelling articulation about race and class politics in America. His previous studies include Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All and The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. What makes Black and White is not so black and white. The Sinking Middle Class is an Introduction on the language of politics and an Afterword on the White Working Class sandwiched around chapters on the political Uses, Pretenses, Problems and Miseries of the Middle Class. As Roediger writes, “Each is meant to be short enough to read in three or four coffee breaks.”
Roediger’s first consideration in The Sinking Middle Class is to consider the language itself. Where did the term come from? What are some of the assumptions that come with its dissemination? Who’s in charge of its meaning and placement within the social narrative of class history. Roediger writes,
The term itself found little use until the last ninety years and not commonly until the Cold War…The strata we might retrospectively call the middle class of the nineteenth century (farmers, free professionals, and shopkeepers) differed utterly from those of twentieth (clerks, salespeople, employed professionals, and managers).
As we become more and more entwined in electricity and speed of light communications it can be difficult to ‘remember’ the slower, black and white ways of the pre-Internet.
We can intuitively recall a stratiated class structure — poor, lower middle class, upper middle class, and rich, with degrees of leaching into the contiguous class. One knew he belonged to the lower middle class (if he thought about it at all consciously) when he couldn’t afford to send his talented kid to Groton School, but wasn’t struggling too much to put a roof over the family and lay out three squares on the table for the family. But, says Roediger,
Over the last thirty years self-serving, vague, and often empty political rhetoric regarding saving the “middle class” has provided the language for rightward political motion finding its way even into unions. Put forward first by the Democrats, it has debased how we understand social divisions in the United States and sidelined meaningful discussions of justice in both class and racial terms.
Somewhere along the line upper middle class on down got grouped as one body — for political purposes, but it’s a fatuous grouping.
You might see it as a way of forcing bloc-voting; a lazy way of approaching the social. economic and moral issues of the day — by trivializing nuance and difference (even as the same old class exclusions applied). And we use the news to deliver these messages, led to believe the ads are objective and balanced bits of information. Roediger lays into this McLuhan effect. Writes Roediger,
The US writer Waldo Frank [writes] in The Re-Discovery of America that “THE NEWS IS A TOY”—that is, a seemingly wonderful novelty and one immediately requiring replacement by a new wonder…the “news item” is overwhelmingly the sound bite of alleged political news, and that “anodyne” must now be in boldface….
I’m reminded of a scene from Boston Legal where the toyfulness of news, and the media in general, is unpacked in the courtroom.
So news, as anodyne, becomes part of the political packaging, part of the show, to be taken, ultimately, as no more serious than the campaign promises. A surreal onslaught, every four years, on the delicate balance between our ears called consciousness, an ecosystem every bit as precious as rainforest. There are laugh tracks, practiced ponderments, tearful moments of William Hurt layer peelings of imagined empathy. But we persist in believing the news, even when they refuse to tell us what we need to know. Roediger writes,
Many of us desire those electoral news items, desperately wanting to be seen as the first to know them, and count that as being engaged in politics … even radicals follow the example of TV pundits in relying on the most quickly available voting data to construct simplistic definitions of class that have little to do with social relations.
Even radicals, and Roediger’s not being snarky or ironical. Shit happens.
Michael Dukakis getting bushwhacked by Bernard Shaw, the latter asking him what he’d do if his wife, Kitty, was raped by Willie “Furlough” Horton becomes laugh track roast material fit for Comedy Central. One recalls this moment of “live” TV (future generations only get this moment and none of the debate, where Dukakis excelled), and Roediger briefly references the moment, a moment racially charged, a Black man asking what a white man of power would do to a Black man If — an impossible question to answer, and we clapped with gleeful little schadenfreude hands as one of the few promising poli’s careers went down the ‘terlit’ (as Archie Bunker would say) and his wife returned to heavy drinking. Maybe that was the silver lining to the moment: Kitty was spared four years of journos clinking her ice cubes (real or imagined).
This cheapening and potentially toxic blend of shallow politics and Madison Avenue massaging was, says Roediger, turned into an art form by consultant and pollster Stanley Greenberg working the Clinton campaign in 1992. Greenberg helped turn Macomb County into a Middle Class Melting Pot America by the careful gathering of data points and manipulation of their results. Writes Roediger,
Greenberg theorized a middle class roughly interchangeable with an alleged white working class—their votes available for the mining in countless electoral campaigns. In the process, he made a suburban, almost entirely white Michigan county seem to be the key to all “progressive” possibility.
As Macomb goes, so goes the nation, was the meme and theme. Another ad, with toothpaste.
Roediger writes that Greenberg referred to his own “working class” background, starting out a white Jewish family living in an all-Black D.C. neighborhood and then migrating to “middle class” Silver Spring, as some kind of street cred he gave himself for “understanding” these categories more fluently than others. But, notes Roediger,
Sympathizing with Macomb County’s suburban workers was nominally available as a result of his own suburban upbringing, but his capacity for understanding them owed more to academic study and political experience than acknowledged personal affinity.
One could argue that such ‘owing to’ is also a valid critique of Marxist scholars among the hoi polloi: They don’t always live the misery, like Studs Terkel, say; often, the best they can do, over crullers and coffee, is sympathize with the Plight.
Roediger notes that in his book, Politics and Poverty, Greenber offers up to the “migrating lower class” what Roediger calls three “Goldilock” scenarios of movement, choices with limited and pre-assigned values. He clarifies by saying,
They could have remained “indifferent and uninvolved” where politics was concerned; they could have “become power brokers . . . tinkering and bargaining for their share;” or, they could have refused to “tinker” and instead entered a radical “confrontation with history.”
Most people chose middle course, writes Roediger, between what really amounted to “a pair of Manichean choices.”
Woven into the fabric of this “Macomb-over” was the cheery “progressive” rhetoric of Stanley Greenberg’s 1995 book, Middle Class Dreams, a collection of stories of people’s everyday lives. A book about how every half, half lived, who wasn’t rich, and so was placed somewhere in the continuum of Middle Class struggles. These struggles and tales of weal woe were captured in the film, The War Room (1993). “Greenberg’s stories of Macomb County mix personal triumph and national salvation promiscuously.” writes Roediger. But read critically, he goes on, “They illuminate how issues of race, class, and power came to be effaced even by those most claiming credit for discussing them electorally in the neoliberal United States.” Massaged and manipulated. Still, for all his savvy, Greenberg is at a loss to later explain how Trump happened.
Roediger explains how this magical kabuki show helped Republicans later attract “Reagan Democrats” and he points to Pete Hamill’s late-60s article, “The Revolt Of The White Lower Middle Class,” in New York that “portentously” spoke to the rising unaddressed tension “the working class, trade union, white, beleaguered, ignored, presumptively male figure who turned from New Deal loyalties to vote for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 and 1984 elections.” These said-samers would later graduate to basket case ‘deplorables.’ A more recent article on this topic is offered up by Joan Williams in a Harvard Business Review article, “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class,” that Roediger unpacks.
This mishmash of ‘folk’ became the subject of a new “technique” called, familiarly now, focus groups, “gathering … people associated demographically and often interviewing them collectively for an extended period, an expensive practice that had previously been used more by Republicans (indeed, the Focus group technique became the Hero of the 1996 Russian election when American consultants — and the Clinton administration — were rushed in to rescue Yeltsin’s campaign: at least, that’s what we were told.). But says Roediger, this snapshot of Macomb County, as described by Clinton and Greenberg, was actually “an exaggeration, a caricature of America.” We’ve been caricatures ever since. He adds, “Nothing in the setup of the research and little in MCD reflected the integrated workplaces and unions in which many in Macomb also existed.” And questions of race were not addressed at all. What racism? The Clinton appeal to assuaging white anxiety backfired, and Hillary, argues Roediger, “paid in 2016 for the race-saturated pro-incarceration rhetoric—Black youth as ‘superpredators’—she and her husband had traded on in appealing to Macomb County’s middle-class dreams in the 1990s.”
Barack Obama also got caught up (willingly) in the lampoon of political demographics. He “deftly liquidated the issue of how a country with such astronomical rates of poverty could be almost all middle class. He defined the middle class as “not only folks who are currently [in] the middle class, but also people who aspire to be in the middle class.” Aspire to be. Hope and Change. Bit this begins to get us into Nora Zeale Hurston country. She once explained how ‘folks’ came to be possessed by the sympathetic power of voodoo: If you want to understand voodoo: believe. It really is like the ol’ tush-grabbing Bush once said of Reaganomics — voodoo, and the Press is there to church us. It’s a plutocracy, where the 1% witch doctor gets to stick it to the 99% Middle Class for fun and exercise of power.
Sanders and Clinton weren’t much better than Obama and Romney, Roediger says, in determining what constitutes Middle Class, “ballparking “below $250,000” annual family income as the benchmark of middle-class membership, though limiting its use to details of tax policy.” Ironically, it seems, then, that by the time You-Know-Who became president, quite a few million people were just plain tired of the political-demographic bullshit. He writes,
Trump presented himself as a modern political leader uniquely unmoved by pretending affinity with the middle class. He bragged repeatedly of his 1 percent status. Overemphasizing his self-made success and deemphasizing his debts, he courted being seen as filthy rich.
He didn’t pretend to be ‘one of us’ and it greatly helped his cause.
Later, Roediger contrasts such focus groups with surveys taken by Fortune magazine before, during and after WWII. Of special interest to him is Fortune’s 1942 survey that asks a series of class-bound questions, including identification and expectations. He takes issue with “Fortune’s assertion that a startling four-fifths of a nation barely off the skids claimed to be middle class has meant its survey is still cited even today” and “It exulted that the nation remained impervious to the formation of ;any self-conscious proletariat such as a Marxist would wish for.’” Roediger notes, however, Fortune’s playfulness in suggesting that “one American in four favored socialism, with another 35 percent reporting having ‘an open mind’ on the issue.” It’s an interesting snapshot of our culture, and well worth a perusal. Here.
But for all his linguistic grappling with the definition, trends and usefulness of the term ‘Middle Class,’ and American Exceptionalism (to which it’s linked), Roediger saves his best for demolishing its presumed allure. It’s a miserable place to be. He lets Marx throw a haymaker, warming up with the reminder that
The precise term “American exceptionalism” came much later and amidst rich irony. One recent account has it originating from Stalin, who in 1929 was searching for a name for a heresy within the world Communist movement he dominated.
But, actually, says Roediger, Marx tells us that the “middle classes” will propogate and that they exist to consume “the surplus bounty produced in the factories by workers,” leading to a Keeping Up with the Joneses, financed by credit debt, leading to a life of “falling and fear of falling,” such as that described by Barbara Ehrenreich in Fear of Falling. Today’s debt slaves. The New Middle Class.
Misery is the picture Roediger paints. He brings in literary figures to illustrate, such as Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the law clerk who “prefers not to” do anymore work, who fades in toiling, losing himself, wasting away. (Not mentioned by Roediger, but apropos, is Melville’s own misery as he toiled as a clerk to support his writing and saw his time and energy and talent waste away. This is something Tillie Olsen picks up on in “Ways of Being Silent,” her fine essay in Harper’s October 1965 issue, almost suggesting Moby Dick was an obsession with writing itself.). Roediger emphasizes that “If we see the middle class as a plight as well as a perch, we can understand something of why many workers see themselves simultaneously as middle class, working class, and living impossible lives.”
He sees misery in the cube, “the tomb where a majority of office workers spend much of their lives,” as detailed in Nikil Saval’s Cubed. Willy Loman and The Death of A Salesman are brought in to express the tragedy of a culture consumed with buying and selling, in a transactional existence, an “embourgeoisement” nobody can fathom. “Loman’s fall and death—a suicide after a series of failed attempts—come not at once but over a lifetime of misery,” Roediger tells us. He writes, “Much of the misery of the middle class fits well within narratives of sudden descent in material terms,” and one recalls how the just before the Towers fell into freefall their middles sagged, and suddenly even images of 9/11 takes on the almost taunting, half-baked truths of memes.
The Sinking Middle Class offers few specific solutions (typical of the Left these days), but it is a good read that points to the vacuity of our central premises regarding what it means to be American and, presumably, Middle Class — at least until the next Credit Report comes rolling with the news of our demise, or, much to our delighted surprise, an opportunity to have our credit limit raised. The book was written before the Covid-19 pandemic began, and it would be interesting to know what Roediger’s response would be to its near certain revolutionary impact on American Exceptionalism.
Corona may be a blessing in disguise, bringing about an end to commerce as usual, a freefall of a class designation not worth saving, and a revolution nobody can do anything about in an America beset with so many vectors of turmoil that starting over may be the only viable answer.
With any luck, a solar flare will knock out our grids, so that we can get back to the business of being human, face-to-face.
by John Kendall Hawkins
“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”
The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, 1848
A few weeks ago New Yorker magazine published a cartoon titled “Glass Ceiling,” which depicted a father and his little daughter looking out the window of an office high up in a skyscraper. The caption read, “Someday, all of this glass ceiling will be yours.” You chuckle, because it’s funny; but then you go ahead and think about it. Then your smirk drops, and you’re thinking, “Shit, that’s not funny at all.” And then you feel bushwacked, and caught out because you laughed inappropriately, and think again: glass ceiling.
One thinks of that disturbing question psychiatrists ask during an admissions assessment: “Why should women in glass houses not throw stones?” It’s meant to determine a certain level of abstract reasoning. The middle-age little girl might answer bravely, “Because it might break the glass. We mustn’t do that.” He smiles upon her, hands her a benzo, and assigns her to the Open Ward; she won’t run. But if Daddy really loved his little girl, when he points out the glass ceiling to her, he’d hand her a brick and say, “Smash that shit.” Concrete reasoning. She’d get the Closed Ward and chlozapine. But, one day, that brick might get her to the White House. (As long as the MSM doesn’t fink on her previous history of mental illness.)
We wait, NOW, with bated breath as current Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, the surprise front runner and back rubber, paces and stays up at night wondering which woman to use as a running mate to guarantee a fall victory against the Pussy Grabber-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump. He wouldn’t win any other way. He needs the women’s bloc to bring their enormous electoral power to the polls just long enough to chase Trump from office and back to the Reality TV toon world he escaped from — abetted by the basket-case deplorables we thought we left behind in the 70s. And it’s not like folks are coming from miles around to pick Joe’s progressive brains for any other reason. Hmph.
Almost 100 years after the 19th Amendment was finally ratified by a male Congress on August 18, 1920, ‘gifting’ women the right to vote, a number of them are waiting around anxiously, like pageant princesses, for the phone to ring and hear corny Joe pop the question: “Will you be my running mate? You lyin’ dog-faced pony soldier?” The girls are anxious; who will it be? Will it be Tulsi? How about Amy? Might Kammy get the nod? Or will it be Sally, Stacey, Sheeny, or Maggie? What if Lizzy, for the good of the potty, throws away her principles and endorses Ol’ Joe in exchange for the nod? An arsenic and old lace cup of tea away from the presidency. But what if she dies first of old age? Whoa, more glass ceilings.
Such are the images and white noise that invade the mind as I make my way through Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote by Ellen Carol Dubois. Released during Women’s History Month, the book not only celebrates the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, but also details the 75 year struggle leading up to the Statute of Liberty. It’s a book about enormous multigenerational courage and the triumph of common sense, from surviving physical domestic abuse to waking men up to their own folly: women, too, are humans, people, citizens, and not just chattel. It’s a book chock full of heroines (and heroes too), and laden with seemingly intractable complexities and obstacles to overcome: race, class, religion, anthropology, politics — and just plain evil.
Dubois describes two waves of women — the fin de siecle pioneers and the Next Generation militants — who through sheer determination and personal sacrifice wear down the lip servants of Liberty to take hold of what was theirs to begin with: autonomous selfhood. The battle begins, in 1848, in upper state New York, when a series of parlor discussions about abolition turns into one of women’s issues and “the long-accumulating discontent” of the second sex, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, evolves into a passionate statement of intended emancipation known as the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentments. Women were mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it any more.
It was, writes Dubois, — a kind of in-your-face revelation of male hypocrisy:
We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Sound familiar? Same same, but now with “women” added. New and improved product. Very effective. (Although one guy is said to have gawped out, “Hey, that’s plagiarism.”) But like every “new” product it took awhile to soak in. Some say, 100 years later, it still hasn’t soaked in. Maybe we need a new washing machine.
With the parlor successes of Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton reached out to leaders of communities more far flung, to the West and the pioneer states, as well as overseas. But it should be noted that her parlor talks and travelling required money, which brings to the fore the fact that she was well-off, and that, at first, suffrage in the East, was seen as an elitist goal; poor and Black women were too busy or tired to talk and travel. As Dubois writes of Stanton,
When insults and male arrogance became too much to bear, which happened frequently, her self-confidence would turn to arrogance. She would default to a haughty—and infuriating—elitism….
Still, Stanton spread the gospel of emancipation that would free poor women too (even if they didn’t know it at the time).
In 1840, at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London (where women were excluded from participating, although they watched men debate slavery from the gallery), Stanton met Lucretia Mott. the woman who would become her mentor. Mott, a Quaker abolitionist from Massachusetts, was a woman Dubois decribes as “emancipated from all faith in man-made creeds, from all fear of his denunciations.” Fearless women is what the movement needed, and there was no shortage of them back in the day, and they had no desire to be mere copies of men in their political deeds and future votes — but leaders of thought. “It was under [Mott’s] tutelage,” writes Dubois, “that..Stanton grew into a great women’s rights thinker.”
Back home,in Worcester, Mass., another convention served to align the values of abolitionists and the suffragettes. It was attended by such luminaries as Frederick Douglass and Stephen Foster. Dubois describes the vibe:
“The cause we have met to advocate…bids us remember the two millions of slave women at the South, the most grossly wronged and foully outraged of all women,” the convention resolved, “and omit no effort to raise [them] to a share in the rights we claim for ourselves.”
This fierce resolution, Dubois suggests, was in response to the Fugitive Slave Act. a dickheaded law that allowed Southerners to come to Northern states to repo escaped slaves. But sometimes freemen got taken. Think: 12 Years A Slave.
But probably the most well-known suffrage leader, and future coin head, was Susan B. Anthony, another Quaker from Massachusetts. She was a stout leader of the temperance movement and a committed abolitionist. She and Stanton formed the New York Women’s State Temperance Society in 1852. Ten years before the Civil War, writes Dunois, “the abolition of slavery and temperance were the two issues most riling American society, shaking up political parties, and—of particular
importance—igniting women’s energies.”
Dubois mentions other early suffragettes, such as Lucy Stone, from Mass., the first American woman to earn a college degree, and Amelia Bloomer, from Seneca Falls, who edited the magazine The Lily, for which Stanton wrote regularly. Bloomer is most remembered for the ‘feminist’ fashion statement she introduced, which like the Turkish pantaloon was a loose-fitting garment that suffragettes adopted as a symbol and called a “freedom dress.” It caused a sensation probably akin to the recent Burqua fashion craze introduced by rich car-driving Saudi women. (However, suffrage in the Kingdom is unnecessary, onnacounta they don’t really have any elections.)
One of the most challenging aspects of Suffrage is Dubois’s weaving and unwinding of the myriad threads of political and social complexity. For instance, most suffragettes were abolitionists who worked hard to see slavery ended; but other suffragettes weren’t particularly bothered by it. Most contemporary Americans are unaware that a majority of Northerners were indifferent to the plight of slaves. On January1, 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, which some claim the North was losing, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, “using his presidential powers to declare all slaves in rebel territory forever free.”
As Dubois explains though,
The resentment of many white northerners of the proclamation, which seemed to them to mean only that they would pay the ultimate price to end slavery, about which they were concerned little, and free the slaves, about whom they cared even less, boiled over.
Riots broke out in New York and many Blacks were killed, when America’s first draft was announced — one in which the rich conscripts could buy their way out of, while working class workers could lose their jobs processing (ironically) sugar and cotton from the South.
Dubois points out some very serious flaws in the legacy of the Emancipation. For one thing, she writes, “Like all executive orders, it could be undone by the next president.” But more stunning, Dubois points out that “Right before his death, Lincoln had laid out a plan for a postwar reconstruction that would readmit seceding states but not enfranchise African Americans.” Susan B. Anthony was appalled and said of his plan at a memorial service shortly after his assasination,
My soul was sad and sick at what seemed his settled purpose—to consign the ex-slaves back to the tender mercies of the disappointed, desperate, sullen, revengeful ex-lords of the lash.
For Lincoln, the Civil War might have been so politically costly that he felt he needed to be conciliatory. For suffragettes, it ended up alienating them from the abolitionist fight.
Another piggy back ride that proved costly for the suffragettes was their hopping on the back of the Temperance Movement in the hopes of driving women together to form one bloc of action that would lead to suffrage for all. Frances Willard, a friend of Anthony’s led the charge through the Women’s College Temperance Union. Writes Dunois, “Drink, she believed, was a new form of enslavement that she was called upon to fight, just as her abolitionist parents had fought chattel slavery.” But the strategy was dubious for one obvious reason — few men to be affected — not just the drunks and louts, who tippled and terrorized families at home — but powerful gentlemen who enjoyed a good glass in a social milieu of politics and sports, wanted to stop drinking. There would be hell to pay.
As we’ve seen over time, a lot of white powerful men in America like drinking, but may like the notion of enslavement even more — take modern debt enslavement and the control it implies over lives. Getting women from various socio-economic-religio backgrounds, with various agendas, organized and mobilized around the concept of universal suffrage — and seeing it as the political key that unlocked all other doors — was a formidable task. A lot of women just didn’t see it that way. For instance, suffragists had difficulty convincing Democratic women who, writes Dubois, “regarded woman suffrage as a wealthy woman’s hobby.” While abolition and temperance alliances severely hampered suffrage for decades, once working class women saw what was in it for them, they embraced the movement.
One of the great moral and political boosts for suffrage was the fact that many states west of the Mississippi –the Go West pioneer states — in the end, some 12 states where women could vote. These acted as a stable reference point and a factual rebuff to those men — and women — back East who proclaimed suffrage could neither be done nor was wanted. Maud Young, a speaker at the National Women’s Party (NWP), reminded her audience that
Four years ago, women voted in six States—today in twelve.…[They] constitute nearly one-fourth of the electoral college, and [cast] more than one-third of the votes necessary to elect a President.” She finished with a ringing call: “The women’s votes may determine the Presidency of the United States.”
And they would, too, if they ever got together as one.
In the 20th century, a second generation of suffragettes, the New Woman, pushed through the usual obstacles, plus the muddle of World War I (where the work women did in armaments factories, in support of soldiers overseas, greatly helped their cause), and strove on through a distracting pandemic known as the Spanish Flu, which took perhaps 50 million lives, to eventually successfully pressure president Woodrow Wilson in backing legislation for the 19th Amendment.
Among the stars of the show in this more active era cited by Dubois were Ellis Meredith, a novelist and journalist who wrote a column for the Rocky Mountain News called A Woman’s World; Carrie Chapman Catt, who played a major role in the international suffrage movement; Anna Howard Shaw, a physician and ordained minister; Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, who helped build a bridge between labor and suffrage; Harriet Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the first female civil engineer in America; Milholland Boissevain, “the supreme New Woman, [who] was renowned for her determination and fearlessness.”
But Alice Stokes Paul, was the firebrand the movement needed to bring it all home. In 1913, She worked closely with Blatch and Carrie Chapman Catt, as they organized a major suffrage parade in Washington, DC. Paul had witnessed first and the tactics employed by British women in their own fight for suffrage (watch Suffragette here). Writes Dubois, “Paul had learned from the British suffragettes to deploy public demonstrations for maximum popular attention and to hold the political party that was in power responsible for inaction on women’s enfranchisement.” But it could get violent.
In August 1917, DC was covered with picketers demanding the right to vote for women. Paul, and others, decided to get themselves arrested to make a splashier point in the news. Shortly after Alexander Kerensky, who led the Russian provisional government after the 1917 revolution, announced that Russia would be “enfranchise its women,” writes Dubois, “Suffragists wanted to underline the irony of the president’s resistance to women’s enfranchisement.” Their banners ‘announced’ to the people’s revolutionaries that America was not democratic. The Wilson administration was not happy. “A line had been crossed,” writes Dubois. “Peaceful picketing now began to look like treason.” The picketers couldn’t be arrested under the new Espionage Act law, but were arrested for obstruction of traffic and disturbing the peace, tried and sentenced to six months imprisonment.
Paul continued to push for her rights,and those of the others, while in prison. Recalling the tactics of British militant suffragettes, Paul and the others set up a hunger strike, which gained them lots of press, but at a significant cost to Paul. Dubois writes,
Paul would be the first suffrage activist in the United States subjected to forced feeding… This was another first: the first documented use of psychiatric diagnosis and confinement as a deliberate form of political repression in the United States, perhaps worldwide.
More recently, one recalls how we wrung our hands in anguish when we discovered that ‘gloves-off’ Enhanced Interrogation Techniques against Gitmo ‘terrorists’ sometimes involved force-feeding (and remember the Zero Dark Thirty scene?), but we were doing it to our own women almost 100 years earlier.
Dubois sums up, “When on August 26, 1920, the secretary of state certified that ratification was completed, the Nineteenth Amendment became part of the Constitution.” Women now had the right to vote and the power to influence legislation with it. But Dubois seems almost wistful in the end, as she notes disappointment in the fact that women never came together afterward to form the kind of formidable voting bloc that could have significantly changed politics in America. Indeed, when all was said and accomplished, newspapers across the country called into question the success of suffrage. Dubois refuses to deny or qualify one fact: “Even so, [as hard as suffragettes had worked] the first election brought out approximately one-third of eligible women voters, about half the rate of men.”
Dubois closes with a few measuring stick paragraphs on how far women have come since 1920 in developing an elusive agenda and bloc of electoral power. She singles out Betty Friedan for her book, The Feminine Mystique,and its influence on getting women to free themselves from a modern day slave mentality. She says the book was received “hostilely by women.” In her Epilogue, she quotes a joke she overheard between two men talking after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed — some guy says to the other: “”It will give men equal opportunity to be Playboy bunnies.” Maybe, but perhaps they should read Gloria Steinem’s account of her undercover days serving Hugh Hefner, “A Bunny’s Tale.”
Sexual harassment (Epstein, Weinstein), domestic abuse, fracturing along all the usual lines — class, race, religion, partisan politics — the struggle forward and upward continues, just as it started out 100 years ago –call it the Myth of Sisterphus. About the only thing men and women don’t fight over much any more is drinking: Everybody loves to get shitfaced on the weekend, EOE.
The only question that remains is the age-old one that goes back to Adam: who owns a woman’s body. We’ve been wondering that since Eve was just a rib in Adam’s eye. But I don’t really want to know the answer. I’m not sure I like the implications.
Don’t have to live like a refugee (Don’t have to live like a refugee)
(I won’t back down) No, I won’t back down
– Tom Petty
The global refugee crisis has been with us for a while. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there’s been a steady flow of displaced humans from their home nations into statelessness and then on to begrudged statefulness among strangers. According to the agency, there are 4.2 million stateless people right now. Some people are stateless within their own natal nation (Yemen). The number of refugees stayed at about 40 million a year until about 2012, when it began an unbroken rise upward to the 80 million mark today.
Why? The usual understated suspects — war, internal failure of governance, economic catastrophe, climate change. But, also, movement coincides with the rise of ISIS and the Levant, a militant Islamic insurgency created in the aftermath of the illegal 2003 Shock And Awe display in Iraq, which saw militant forces gather and claim a caliphate (a global statehood, in the Levant region, for radical Islam) — a claim rejected by the US “without prejuduce,” and leading to a reign of terror and counter-terror in the region, ending abruptly when Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi allegedly blew himself heavenward clutching two virgins. The mess that’s been made in Syria by the post-Cold War exploits of Russia and America has sent hundreds of thousands of people toward an unwelcome Europe. Covid-19 has exacerbated their plight.
You could argue that statelessness includes the Apart-Hate system that saw The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah come into the world illegally — his journey across the birth canal a kind of fence-jumping — that he recounts in his memoir, Born A Crime. It’s a crazy world. More recently, I reviewed a book by Kurdish refugee from Iran, Behrouz Boochani, who tried to enter Australia by boat (illegal, and making him permanently ineligible for entry) and was sent to a detention camp on Manus Island, where he described conditions so foul and horrific to an advocate in Australia — by way of WhatsApp — that it became a best-selling memoir. Rules for a lucrative national award were changed to make the non-Aussie’s book eligible for consideration and — voila! — he won the $125,000 prize.
Today, thanks to more Aussie prizes, book sales, paid interviews, a gig at the Guardian, and his recent movie deal, Boochani nears millionairehood while he waits, in statelessness, in New Zealand, before, ostensibly, heading to America, where he has previously said he wouldn’t go unless he was allowed to sue Australia for its atrocities and abuses. The kicker is, had he been allowed into Australia after Manus, he’d have been abused for his anti-Australian comments (guaranteed) — probably by some of the same Lefties who championed him. Being a refugee can mean crossing the border into Wonderland.
With Ilhan Omar’s memoir (as told to Rebecca Paley), This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey From Refugee To Congresswoman, the reader returns to a more traditional tale of horrific displacement and resettlement with a happy ending. The book is roughly segmented into three sections corresponding with important phases of her life: early childhood in Somalia, teen to young adult life in Virginia and Minnesota, and the commencement of her political career in Washington, DC. Frankly, the first half of the account is thoroughly engaging, as she provides anecdotes of her trials and tribulations, mostly as a refugee and/or immigrant literally fighting for her physical and psychical liberty; however, her later political doings, despite her unique cultural challenges, drags a bit; and, the closing chapter is essentially a stump speech in sheep’s clothing.
Omar’s tale of growing up in Baidoa, a burb of Mogadishu, where she was born in 1982, only to end up in a burb of Minneapolis, where she was scorned, is compelling, poignant, and frank. As Omar tells Paley, right out of the chute she was a fighter and a social critic. Observing, one day in third-grade class, a boy taunting another aggressively, Omar’s hackles were up, when the bully exclaimed:
“Hooyadawus!” which means “Go fuck your mother” in Somali. I burned in my seat. I always hate it when people use vulgar language, but I get really angry when it involves mothers, who I knew from the beginning were sacred—even if I didn’t have one.
Seven year old Omar told the bully to sit down and shut up, and he replied he’d beat snot out of her after school, and then, later, their battle ended when, “I pulled the boy down and rubbed his face in the sand.” Her brother came along and shouted at her, “Ilhan! What the hell?”
Lesson: You don’t mess with the Ilhan. For letting a girl force his head in the sand, the bully could barely save face and was forever ostrichsized; none of his peers wanted to, um, emulate him after that.
In the mid-80s, growing clan unrest, brought about by aging Somalian president Mohammed Siad Barre’s agitation of the masses and move toward totalitarianism, saw the eruption of a civil war the effects of which continue to this day. Omar recalls, “I remember everything shutting down. School was the first institution to go, but eventually the mosques, the postal service, the television stations, even the market closed down.” Subsistence diets were forced on them:
(To this day, I hate plain rice. It brings back that time when everyone smelled like a bag of rice. It seeped into people’s pores like we had drowned in it.)
Omar relates that her family had to flee the country when she was nine years old, due to its level of violence, much of it aimed at her clan, and ended up in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya for four years.
Omar describes her early relationship with her father, Baba, by whom, along with an aunt, she was principally raised (she doesn’t remember her mother, who died when she was in preschool). Her father, she says, suspended Somali tradition in raising her, treating her not as a second class girl, but as a social equal. She says,
Baba continued to invest a lot of time and energy in the girls of the family…He was extremely close to us and did not adopt the traditional patriarchal role of the protector that Somali men usually fall into with the opposite sex. He treated us as equals.
As we discover later in the narrative, this is an important point: It helps explain to the still-patriarchal Somali community in Minneapolis her gender-breaking ambition to run for public office, and to lead, rather follow, steps behind the man, any man.
Another important influence early on is Omar’s habaryar (aunt) Fos, who showered her with maternal affection and dignity. “She was a super human, but one who didn’t need her powers to be recognized or celebrated,” relates Omar. “I could get in trouble with just about anybody. But I couldn’t get in trouble with her. ‘This is my sister’s baby,’ she would say.” And, during the flight from Somalia, amidst militia battles, Fos contracted malaria, and she “grew sicker and sicker until she could no longer get out of bed.” This event became not only a devastating personal loss but a key moment in her education:
I don’t think I’ve known greater devastation and sorrow than when Fos died…My aunt’s death meant in very real terms that there was no such thing as escape in this life…Nothing is permanent, and that fact made me really angry.
Omar shows over and over again an ability to channel her anger for constructive purposes.
Once in the refugee camp in Kenya, she describes conditions that would make Boochani blush with overstatement. In Dadaab, temporarily ‘resettled’ in a virtual wasteland under the sun’s tormenting eye, she describes ailments. A lucky refugee, she caught “only” chicken pox,
Without any kind of remedy or medicine, my skin burned under the scorching heat. I could literally hear the blisters popping.
A la Nietzsche’s famous now pop-songed quip, That which does not kill me makes me stronger, she adds, “Despite the physical agony I was experiencing, I knew chicken pox wasn’t going to kill me.” She notes the look of others, “For the first year and a half in the camp, my grandfather and dad walked around like zombies. All the adults were like shells of humans.” It’s a common refugee experience.
She describes long lines:
There were watering stations throughout the camp where people lined up with plastic jugs to fill…The other line known for its battles was the one for the bathroom…I also stood in line for our food, such as rice, beans, flour, or oil.
She observes Kenyan resentment at their numbers — 334,000 — and needs.
After four years in the camp, Omar and her family are relocated to America. They’ve been prepped: pep talks and videos conjure up visions of wealth, good will, and opportunity. She remembers how refugees were dressed on the way to America:
A man handing his boarding pass to a flight attendant wore a suit that was at least two sizes too big for him. Two little girls, testing out the tables that popped out from the seats in front of them, were in Easter Sunday dresses as if they were about to attend a holiday party.
Before the flight, some of them had gone on a spending spree at secondhand clothing shops to arrive in a dignified fashion.
It’s a festive, yet apprehensive atmosphere on the plane, folks all joy-juiced up on the expectations lent them by US refugee agencies:
There was an unspoken fantasy that when we came to America we would be greeted by its citizens, whom we needed to impress in order to fit in, so that we could land a good job, go to the right school, and move into one of those beautiful homes with the white picket fences we had seen in the orientation video.
Woe — even Marquis de Sade would have blushed at such straw-manning.
But, when they arrive at JFK, hop in a cab on their way to a hotel for the night, young Omar sees from her seat homelessness, squalor, and she is dismayed:
Through the window of the taxi I watched the darkened highways become city streets—and I was appalled by what I saw. Trash everywhere…Large pyramids, some even taller than I was, of black trash bags lined the streets—as if New Yorkers were preparing for a levee to break.
The scene is something she will later draw on in her political career to message that there is a considerable difference between what America advertizes about itself and the product you get handed — but that, working together, we can all make the Dream happen, bring the Ad to life.
When the narrative switches to Arlington, Virginia, and then Minneapolis, we are returned to Omar the Streetfighting Girl. Very entertaining bully-bashing, and no doubt true, if my memory of such moments is accurate anymore. She subtly knocks the US educational system by noting that her Somalian fourth grade education placed her in sixth grade in America. She describes middle school years that conjure up the Levant, a school environment she finds herself in, almost daily, that is part barroom fight and part ice hockey brawl. She tells us she got in fights over “looks” and one day,
I stared back, and if they said something, which of course I couldn’t understand, I usually decided to hit them first, assuming they were going to hit me. I wasn’t afraid, and I wanted people to know it.
Uh-oh, is Omar a unilateralist? ( Maybe we could set up a bout between Boochani and Omar, I’m thinking.)
When she gets to the topic of integument she notes bravely that Somalis have no word for Causcasian. And the American idea of white is, well, odd, and maybe even wyrd. She says,
[M]y conception of white was very different from the American construct. There is no Somali translation for the word Caucasian. The word we use describes an actual skin tone, the way you appear.
This cracked me up, as I pictured the Might Whitey as a black-and-white stick figure, in contrast to the colored folk. And I also thought, more seriously, about Kate Chopin’s story, “Desiree’s Baby,” where the mother is seen as white by her Southern community until, one day, while nursing, someone, I forget who, notices the negroid aureoles of her breasts and the shit hits the fan: Now, she’s Black, and on her way to suicide — just like that. Wyrd.
In Minneapolis, she fell in love with Johnny Depp in his Bollywood-like role in Cry Baby. At Edison middle school, she joined up with dozens of other Somali students, relieved, after three years of relative isolation in Arlington, to be “surrounded by people who understood things about my existence without my having to explain.” But, the fights continue, often over her wearing a hijab. She ended up spending long hours in detention, but “given the long hours of studying in detention, I had become a very good student.” Again, Omar and her silver linings.
But there’s more — more fights, and more life lessons leading to activist leanings and development. She describes the crazy chaos of school days filled with endless dysfunction:
Like Minneapolis itself, Edison’s mainstream classes were very diverse. Unfortunately, the differences among the student population proved more divisive than anything else. There were a lot of fights: everyone fought everyone. African Americans and African immigrants fought over who was blacker. Muslim kids and white ones fought over U.S. policy in the Middle East. Latinos against African Americans, Africans against Native Americans, and on and on.
Diversive/Divisive. Omar saw a thing, and corralled some like-minded pals and formed a coalition they called Unity in Diversity. “We recruited everyone with the express purpose of understanding the triggers of our racially charged environment and bridging the harmful divides,” she said.
Like Barack Obama’s political career, she starts out as a community organizer of sorts, and goes from there. It also is a part of the narrative where she and Paley deftly weave in the influences of her private life, marriage/divorce (Ahmed), kids and miscarriage, the patriarchal influences of the large Somali community of Minneapolis, raising kids and running for office, finishing her education, working on local political campaigns. etc. This is all meet and appropriate, routine and reassuring. She’s a normal American girl overcoming any number of obstacles, a ‘rugged individualist’ who won’t be cowed or bullied by the rest of humankine.
She provides an excellent response to the elephantine question in the room: What’s with the hijab? This is America. Omar explains elegantly and cogently,
The hijab wasn’t about a piece of cloth or the battle against objectification. Instead it was really a symbol of the purity of my presence in the world. It makes sense to me that I need to cover pieces of myself to preserve who I am and feel whole. I’m centered by the hijab, because it connects me to a whole set of internally held beliefs.
This most excellent answer pre-rebuffs any notion of seeing her hiding terrorist thoughts behind the head gear. Now that everyone in America has to wear masks, and have even taken to stylin’ them, maybe they can catch the vibe she’s expressing.
The latter part of the book contains some interesting bits and pieces on her irrepressible rise in politics — it almost seems like an inevitability: As her buddies say, “It’s Ilhan Time.” There’s also a nice moment she shares of her time sitting next to Speaker of the House Pelosi on an overseas trip together, the elderly stateswoman giving her some pom-pom tips on keeping her spirits up during the certain attacks on her character (Omar describes the many that have come her way since running for office, including from members of the Somali community angry that a girl would deem to lead).
And after being elected to the House in 2016, there’s the return trip to visit Somalia, and Mogadishu, her birthplace, where she is deeply disappointed:
When I arrived in Mogadishu, it was not the city in which I had lived.
No monument was fully intact. Familiar roads were blockaded. Both my great-grandmother’s house and my childhood home were inaccessible.
Grief-stricken, I went back to the hotel and fell asleep—for sixteen hours!
An elderly restaurant worker she talks with says that her sleep indicates she’s finally cut her “umbilical” connection to Mama Somalia. This leads to a kind of epiphany during which, she says,
I felt obligated to return and speak about my refugee experience for the first time and to advocate for empathetic policies that take into account real human suffering.
She means it. She’s a young politician. And I’ll be sending her campaign a tax-deductible contribution.
In the memoir’s final chapter, “The World Belongs To Those Who Show Up,” the reader is treated with a stump speech; you know, hopey dopey, rah rah rah, Unity Diversity, e pluribus unum. This is all good stuff, rousing really, even for an old cynic; you like to see the kids working off the previous generation’s karma with audacious enthusiasm, rekindling ideals that get muddled in our pre-Alzheimer days (Did I really believe that once? I’m thinking. Good for me.) And it’s nice to hear her going on about the evil influence that led to George Floyd being murdered by cops (let’s not forget that a couple of them watched Chauvin get up to his knee in neck, while Floyd begged for help, and did nothing to stop it, a crime). And it’s good to know, in a way, that Omar’s political ambitions already contain a built-in governor: She will never be running for president.
But with any luck, she and her feminist buddies in The Squad will push some old privileged face into the sand and get some People shit done for a change.
“…is it, ah, twoo what they say about the way you people are gifted? Oh, it’s twoo, it’s twoo!”
– Lili von Shtupp, Blazing Saddles
It’s been 75 years since the end of WWII and interest in all things Nazi has seen no end; indeed, you could argue cogently that the monster Herr Docktor Deutschenstein brought to life from the parts of dead people and old ideologies has never had more global interest. Innumerable auctions of paraphernalia, books, films, TV series, podcasts, and radio shows have been devoted to the historical phenomena that led to the rise of the Third Reich. You’d like to think it was all in the spirit of Lest We Forget, but you’ll never again be that criminal naive. Evil may be banal, but, mein gott, it’s as popular as ever.
Likewise, 75 years after liberation of Auschwitz, through equally countless media productions and public remembrances, Jews around the globe have spared no effort to remind us of what the rise of such monsterhood has cost civilization. The Holocaust, as represented by the tumbling action of naked human bodies pushed by bulldozers into mass pits, is imagery of such evil and depravity that there remains no adequate way to deal with it emotionally. The Holocaust is, for Jews, what Slavery is for African Americans. — the elephants in the room of western civilization. Sadly, those of us in the room, who are neither Black nor Jewish, no matter how freed from ignorance we believe we are, can’t even promise ourselves that such horror will never happen again. We look around; we know better.
There have been movies made that wonder aloud what would have happened had Hitler escaped the bunker in 1945 with his mentality intact and emerged in some land of magical realism, south of the border, ready to fuck with us again — The Boys from Brazil and Marathon Man are like that. But more recently, populist politics and fascism are on the rise and showing their fangs, and mixed with new technologies (from social media to eugenics), the LestWeForgetism required to keep them at heel is more vital than ever. Democracy is down but not out, the eight-count has begun. Two new streaming series — Hunters (Amazon) and The Plot Against America (HBO) — are What If movies that are based on real events that saw America come terrifyingly close to embracing Nazi thinking before, during and after WWII. They’re timely series worth watching.
Hunters is about a CIA (OSS) program called Operation Paperclip that saw the American government secretly ‘import’ thousands of Nazis at the end of WWII, ostensibly to keep them out of the clutches of the Soviets, with whom America was in a Cold War. The series stars Al Pacino, Logan Lerman (Shirley), Lena Olin (The Artist’s Wife), Saul Rubinek (Billions), and Carol Kane (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). Imagine you’re a survivor of Auschwitz, brought to America to recoup with democracy’s chicken soup, and you’re in a supermarket in Manhattan, say, and look up to see the Nazi who tattooed you and led your family into the gas showers standing right there with an eggplant in his hand, apparently rescued by Americans, too. Jaw-dropping? You bet.
Operation Paperclip was the means by which totally unpalatable Nazi scientists — such as Wernher von Braun and Kurt Blome — were allowed to escape post-war justice at Nuremberg, in order to help the growing Cold War effort against the Soviets. Of Blome, who had been director of the Nazi biological warfare program. Historian Stephen Kinzer writes,
They had learned how long it takes for human beings to die after exposure to various germs and chemicals,and which toxins kill most efficiently. Just as intriguing, they had fed mescaline and other psychoactive drugs to concentration camp [especially Dachau] in experiments aimed at finding ways to control minds or shatter the human psyche.
As for von Braun, he’d led the V2 rocket program that terrorized Britons, and went on to lead NASA’s quest (along with the Black computers) to get to the moon.
In the series, events kick off when a young man, Jonah (Lerman), watches as his grandmother (a death camp survivor) is confronted by a mysterious figure and murdered, while he does nothing to stop it. Anguished and self-questioning, he meets up with and joins Meyer (Pacino), who heads a motley group of Nazi hunters — including a severe British “nun” and a Black woman who gives off Angela Davis vibes — who set out to right the wrong, as vigilantes, of Nazis residing in America. Along the way, they try to understand how the US government could have invited such evil into the country; America risked allowing demon seeds to grow in the homeland. As if to underscore the moral rectitude of their mission, the group uncovers a Nazi plot to set in motion the rise of the Fourth Reich in America. Kick-ass scenes ensue, with lots of ‘entertaining’ twists, especially for Rocket Man von Braun. Industrialists, like Henry Ford, are also given comeuppance as nasty works of Nazi assemblage.
Hunters is a well-acted series, with Pacino especially effective as a slow-moving reflective ‘Jew’ with a penchant for bloody revenge. Jerrika Hinton as Millie Morris, a Black FBI agent caught between the vigilantes and the Nazis being hunted, and, Kate Mulvaney as Sister Harriet, follower of the Olden Rule (an eye-for-an-eye) with mysterious ties to MI6, are also outstanding. The actors playing the evil Nazi villains (Lena Olin, as The Colonel, and Dylan Baker as Biff Simpson) are great, too. And, Jerrika Hinton’s Black FBI agent adds consciousness of the scope of racism, two ex-slave cultures coming together like buff vampire slayers to kill off the egos that explode in history like IEDs, as Erich Fromm accounts for in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.
The series is, at times, comic bookish, but has outstanding a-lineal insertions, like the game show, Why Does Everyone Hate Jews?, where seemingly ordinary contestants are asked leading questions about the ‘evil Jews’; the insertion serves as a useful plot device to expose America’s underlying bigotry. It helps us see how ordinary Americans, in their desire to make America great again (or worse), could be hoodwinked by fascist bullshitters. Also, the insertions are surreal. The game show reminded me of a segment in Natural Born Killers when a psychopathic Rodney Dangerfield explodes on a TV screen in an episode of “I Love Mallory” and takes over the film for a minute. It’s a very powerful storytelling device for flashing Marilyn Knox’s dysfunctional childhood that is seen as the implicit motivation for her later evil. And the surrealism speaks to the incapacity of human language, at some point of outrage, to adequately express existential horror. The title of Harlan Ellison’s short story, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” kind of sums up the situational tension.
Moving along a different line of alternate history, equally plausible, given the status of the hero involved, The Plot Against America, based upon the novel by Philip Roth, involves Charles Lindbergh and the imagined cooptation of the American government by the Nazis as a result of Lindbergh’s public avowal of neutrality, but private admiration for Hitler, during WWII. In short, what if he’d run for president in 1940 and won, and then broke bad? The short series stars Winona Ryder (Evelyn Finkel), Ben Cole (Charles Lindbergh), Zoe Kazan (Bess Levin) and John Turturro as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. It has a far slower pace than Hunters, in keeping with Roth’s intended gradualist rhythm, but delivers the Big Chill at the end. Like Hunters, it has high quality ensemble acting, and is both informative and entertaining.
In 1940, Charles Lindbergh was the spokesperson of the America First movement (think: Trump), which was non-interventionist and strongly critical of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s desire to provide military aid to European nations facing Germany’s expansionist aggression. Lindbergh became a national hero in 1927 when he completed the first solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in the monoplane dubbed The Spirit of St.Louis. He won a medal of honor and revolutionized commercial flights; he received a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan upon his return from Paris. Many Jews regarded him as a Nazi sympathizer (in 1938 Hermann Goering awarded him a medal, Order of the German Eagle, just a couple of weeks before Kristallnacht). But was he evil?
Engaging the masses directly, in a Reader’s Digest article in 1939, just as WWII was getting going, Lindbergh wrote:
We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.
So we put up a wabbit-pwoof fence awound owwa democwacy, as Lili would say. She had to; Lady Liberty was getting exhausted servicing all the money-on-the-barrel requests from foreign riff-raff trying to get in, said Lindbergh, from a spirited honky-tonk in St. Louis.
The Plot Against America is a work of what we call today “creative nonfiction.” The novel tells the story from the Roth family view as Lindbergh rises to fame. Philip himself is the book’s narrator, but in the tv series young Philip is relegated to mere mortal narratee status. It’s as if Roth, in his waning years of creative productivity, worried about the future for his children and the country and penned this allegorical dystopia. The specific inspiration for the story came from Roth’s parsing of an as yet unpublished memoir by Arthur Schlesinger in which he cited Republicans pushing for Lindbergh to run against FDR. This must have chilled Roth, given what he knew about the history of bigotry in America.
In the HBO series, John Turturro’s role as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf is central to understanding the dynamics at work in the story. American Jews, in the lead up to the 1940 presidential election, have yet to hear much more than rumors about the Nazis sending people to death camps, but the incendiary rhetoric is there, and Kristallnacht on November 10, 1938 had alerted the world of the Rough Blonde Beast slouching toward civilization. The good rabbi is a pacifist who initially celebrates Lindbergh’s call of non-intervention in Europe. Pacifism has deep roots in America, going back even to the Civil War, and more often than not, citizens have had to be conned, duped or drafted into going to war.
In some ways, the series lays out the heartbreak of the well-meaning rabbi and “the broken mirror of innocence,” as Bobby Dylan sings, that reveals the blind spots in his self-reflection that lead him to being an inadvertent and leading moral spokesperson for the Nazi regime. (Lindbergh had been highly criticized by American Jewry for not returning Goering’s medal following Kristallnacht, as it sent a message of appeasement.) Invited to President Lindbergh’s White House dinner in honor of the Nazi ambassador, Lionel ignores the swastika flag draped next to the American flag, the talk of close cooperation (even as Europe is being terrorized), and tolerates Henry Ford’s nasty anti-semitic insults at the shindig. It’s a classical tragedy, in that it leads to the fall of the Bengelsdorf family from power and grace. My hamartia hankies were sopping wet; catharsis was achieved.
When Lindbergh referenced, in his Readers Digest piece, the preservation of our inherited “European blood: and how Americans must guard against its “dilution by foreign races,” it resonated with the tropes and themes expressed in such social darwinistic tomes as The Passing of the Great Race (1916) by Madison Grant, which asserted that superior Nordic races had been enervated by overexposure to democracy. Early in his tenure at Columbia University cultural anthropologist Franz Boas was called on by the federal government to gather data among residents of Kleindeutschland (known today as the Lower East Side), which was “brimming with Jews, Poles, Italians, and Slovaks,” to gather statistics on assimilation by these ‘inferior’ lower cranials to back Grant’s thesis. But, instead, Boas rejected such notions, and cultural relativism was born.
In his rise to power, Hitler expressed admiration for America’s vision of racial segregation and Jim Crow policies, and Nazis were said to have been influenced in their concentration camp designs by the American Indian reservation system. With slavery as a legacy and disenfranchisement as a rule, white Americans were already living high off the Jim Crow hog. It was a feedback loopy thing between American elites and the Nazis.
According to Ira Katznelson in his review of James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model, It’s a “stubborn fact that during the 1933–45 period of the Third Reich, roughly half of the Democratic Party’s members in Congress represented Jim Crow states, and neither major party sought to curtail the race laws so admired by German lawyers and judges.” Even if Boas, a German immigrant, disappointed Congressmen in failing to find a scientific basis for racism, politics picked up the slack, and Americans, by and large, are Good Germans in a pinch.
It’s difficult to choose which of the two series is the more effective in getting its message across. Operation Paperclip never should have been allowed to happen; Nazis (war criminals) were invited into America and provided gift-wrapped middle class lifestyles (i.e., the American Dream) without the knowledge or consent of the public. There’s no way an elderly survivor of the Holocaust should experience the trauma of standing in a grocery line one day in Manhattan, only to look up and see the Commandant who tattooed her fondling an eggplant in front of her. We blamed the Russkies; they woulda got ‘em, if we didn’t. But you could argue, instead, for a Tarrantino ending, such as that depicted in Inglorious Basterds, another alternate history. Indeed, the Hunters are just that — inglorious basterds forced by their government’s evil to become vigilantes to right the wrong. Luckily, we have the likes of Simon Wiesenthal to rescue us from our deeper throes of vengeance, and this Good Cop Bad Cop question is handled deftly in the series.
Both series are powerfully presented and timely — especially in a land prone to populist hucksterism and filled with conspiracy theorists (how could it be otherwise in a democracy, amplified by so-called Deep State shenanigans, like unreported Operation Paperclip and almost unreported STELLARWIND?). While both series are entertaining, as a result of fielding top-flight acting ensembles, their real value is placing before the viewer an undeniable plausibility that Hannah Arendt wasn’t just talking shit: Evil really is so banal as to require constant vigilance against the vigilantes that lay in wait deep in the dixie hearts of Democrats and Republicans alike. We don’t call our electoral choices the Lesser of Two Evils for nothing.
As Nietzsche might have said, when we are fighting Golems, we need to be careful that we don’t become Golems ourselves.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Dunbar’s number, the famous estimate of how many relationships you can meaningfully maintain in life, is just 150.
- Edward Snowden, Permanent Record (2019)
I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together
- The Beatles, “I Am The Walrus,” (1967)
Dot-Dash. Here-Gone. Off-On. In-Out/Out-In. One-Zero. 2B or 2B. Being and Nothingness. At the same time. Anal-Digi-Quanthump. The Dot Com lowers the boom. Fuck me, if I can follow; I need help. Is this AA; am I in the right place? It makes me think of what Eddie Snowden said last year in his illegal memoir, Isn’t “journalism about following the bread crumbs and connecting the dots? What else did reporters do all day, besides tweet?” (About the president’s tweets.)
They could start with the dot. A little dot’ll do ya. You, me, her. Them, especially Them. Connect the dots, degrees-of-separation style. Think of us all as synonyms and antonyms (fer me or agin me) and how definitions change, depending on who’s calling the narrative shots. Plug a word into the Visual Thesaurus (try Friend) and see what happens. Like Snowden wrote in Permanent Record,
We are the first people in the history of the planet for whom this is
true, the first people to be burdened with data immortality, the fact that our
collected records might have an eternal existence.
It’s hard to get your head around — digitals dots of electromagnetic self, jittery particulates of consciousness, arrayed someWhere, forever. And the closer we get to total online hivemindedness (the Internet as a need), the closer we get to the self-conscious extinction of our species.
This all sounds hokey and hoochy and maybe even a little hallucinogenic. But think about it, reader. Recently, I was reading (and reviewing) a book on consciousness by Philip Goff, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, wherein he leads the reader toward a vision not-so-splendid:
[Integrated Information Theory] predicts that if the growth of internet-based connectivity ever resulted in the amount of integrated information in society surpassing the amount of integrated information in a human brain, then not only would society become conscious but human brains would be “absorbed” into that higher form of consciousness. Brains would cease to be conscious in their own right and would instead become mere cogs in the mega-conscious entity that is the society including its internet based connectivity.
Scary, true stuff in theory. But here’s the big question, as it approaches: Who’s in charge? Time to re-read your dogma-eared copy of The Portable Marx.
We need sure-footed sherpas for the Himalayas of heaped-up shit ahead. And that’s what Bart Gellman proposes to be in his new book, Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State. Who’s in charge? The worry is built right into the title. We live now in a world divided by a pane of tinted glass behind which unseeable (but sensed) protectors of our Way of Life (whatever that means this week), without our permission, watch and store all of our activity — Internet and Mobile — as if we were little more than data points requiring constant scrutiny for signs of terrorism, -vertently or in-, and every dot-person we connect to will go into a special database when we visit Counterpunch magazine. (Too late, buy your buds a Bud and sheepishly apologize. They’ll smile, with revelations of their own, raising the ante: Hustler. Douché! now you’re in the Raunch database.)
Another question that comes up while reading Gellman’s book is the question of why the book now? Sad to say, it’s almost nine years since Snowden spilled the beans on what the Bastards are up to, and while his brilliant memoir last year served to plump up a thinking man’s pillow to sleep on, nobody seems to give a shit any more, again — a default position, it seems, in the postmod age. But Gellman seems unquieted by such indifference and is providing a long-overdue, and welcome, account of what makes Snowden run — from the point of view of a self-described mainstream journalist (he’s ‘free’ now, after many years at WaPo, where darkness has fallen on democracy).
I found it quite valuable for him to page-perform the political pressures and legal issues an MSMer was up against as he worked alone, and with journalistic rogues and renegades, such as Laura Poitrast, Glenn Greenwald, and even Julian Assange. Maybe Gellman was inspired by the film, Official Secrets, which features the hand-wringing of journos at the Observer in London as they report on a whistleblower’s leak (Katherine Gunn) proving the NSA’s attempts to get the GCHQ to extract kompromat from members of the UN Security Council in the lead-up to the vote on going to war with Iraq.
It’s good to know what struggles some newsroom journos go through to report on abuses by our elected political governors. If nothing else, such a struggle is unexpectedly uplifting to witness in an era when reporters are often likened to stenographers. The film played out the dramatic tension that exists between the public’s right to know and the government’s need for secrecy, ostensibly in order to protect its citizens from harm, which is what Gellman is interested in examining when he looks back at his meetings with Edward Snowden in 2013 and thereafter.
A key moment in all this wonderment came in 2004, just before the November presidential election. James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote a blockbuster piece on mass surveillance in America for the New York Times that their Editorial Editor, Bill Keller, quashed, expressing, according to Risen later, a desire to avoid being an October Surprise for the upcoming election. Risen knocked back Keller’s argument, writing in the Intercept, “I pointed out that if he decided not to run the story before the election, that would also have an impact, but he seemed to ignore my comment.” Mass surveillance is not the same as some pol’s unwanted hand down a woman’s panties — revealed just before the election — it’s potentially a clear and present danger to democratic values; voters should’ve been allowed to factor in Bush’s surveillance.
In the piece, finally published in the Times more than a year later, in 2005, and only after Risen had informed them that he would be including the story in his upcoming book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, Ris and Lichtblau describe how the Bush administration,
Under four collection programs overseen by Vice President Cheney, the NSA and FBI began wide-ranging surveillance of internet and telephone communications within the United States.
It was unknown to the public; they had no idea that a secret program, known as STELLARWIND, existed, and that Bush authorized the comprehensive collection of all American communications without any kind of warrant, and with the full cooperation of telephone and internet providers.
The program raises many questions, among them, “Are citizens equipped to hold their government accountable?” writes Gellman. And, Risen adds that, sadly for democracy, the decision to exclude the piece may have come as a result of the personal friendship between NSA Director Michael Hayden and Philip Taubman, associate editor for national security issues at the Times: “Keller now says that Taubman’s relationship with Hayden played an important role in the decision to not run the story.” The NSA (Michael Hayden) and FBI (Robert Mueller) were in on this illegal activity. Snowden, Risen and Gellman all point out that this information on STELLARWIND would have come nine years before Snowden’s revelations, and, all agree, that the story’s suppression affected his later decision on how to publicize the information.
An unhappy Risen recalls that “the impact of the story was immediate and explosive. George W. Bush was forced to confirm the existence of the program, even as he called the leak of information about it a ‘shameful act.’” Federal agents were unleashed to hunt down the hoodoo everythere. Congress was professionally “outraged” that the Bush administration would have the chutzzies to hide such a program; they called investigations (later, they helped pass legislation that retroactively legalized Bush’s executive order and passed immunity to the telecoms for their role in the extra-constitutional activity). Bush justified his “terrorist surveillance program,” using Unitary Executive theory as his basis.
Turns out, it would have been a critical issue in the presidential campaign. As Snowden put it, “Had that article run when it was originally written, it might well have changed the course of the 2004 election.” (Hurts even more, when you consider that Greg Palast, in his new book, How Trump Stole 2020, shows that John Kerry was robbed of the presidency by vote manipulation.)
This is a lot of cyber ink spilled on the failings of the New York Times in October 2004 and Snowden’s revelations later — a long time ago — “but Dark Mirror is not a book about Snowden, or not only that,” writes Gellman. “It is a tour of the surveillance state that rose up after September 11, 2001, when the U.S. government came to believe it could not spy on enemies without turning its gaze on Americans as well.” He adds, “At its core this is a book about power.”
Gellman first heard of Snowden through independent filmmaker Laura Poitrast. He writes that “three days before Christmas 2010, she turned up unannounced at my office, just off Washington Square.” He had admired her film, My Country, My Country, which traced the failed attempt to install democracy under U.S. occupation in Iraq. She would later go on to win an Oscar for the documentary of her 2013 encounter with Snowden in Hong Kong, called CitizenFour.
Beginning in 2013, they began working together to determine whether a contact reaching out to them, and his alleged cache of top secret documents, were legitimate. He went by the name “Verax,” Latin for speaker of truth. Early on Gellman wonders,
Was her source the whistleblower he claimed to be? A fabricator who used public records to feign inside knowledge? A real intelligence analyst peddling fake intrigue? A half-informed official who misread something benign?
Gellman and Snowden didn’t hit it off right away, as Snowden was mistrustful of his MSM credentials, which he felt would lead to journalistic compromise and leave Snowden stranded with his story not properly told to the public (making a return to America impossible without facing Espionage charges.) Snowden wants to work with adversarial “voices.”
Gellman mentions how Snowden had been reaching out to Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald. “Months of effort, however, had failed to elicit a reply from Greenwald,” writes Gellman, “who disregarded emails from Verax and a how-to video on encryption.” Thus begins Gellman’s ambivalence towards the personality that Greenwald is, in his militant advocacy for Constitutional integrity in government and his concomitant commitment to in-your-face spotlighting of congressional and presidential abuses.
It’s an amusing tension returned to several times. Greenwald has been especially effective highlighting the abuse of the pocket-writs called executive orders that Greenwald warned, before Trump arrived, could be catastrophic in the wrong exec’s hands. Uh-oh. But for all his genius, Gellman doesn’t seem to like Greenwald. He seems to be a bit of Luddite, slow to adopt encryption, and, Gellman thinks, a bit of a backstabber and a primadonald. It helps the reader to see such friction between two prize-winning journalists.
Gellman is not especially fond of Snowden when he meets him either. He’s been informed of Snowden’s personality from reading old forum posts Snowden made as TheTrueHOOHA on the Ars Technica website. He reads: “blended show-offy erudition, teenage irony, righteous anger, generous advice, and orthodox libertarian bromides.” And even reading Snowden’s memoir you can feel elements of that sort of vibe coming from Snowden. But there’s more to Snowden than Gellman seems to suggest, perhaps he’s nodding to the need to seem balanced.
For one thing, Snowden has a devilish sense of humor. Gellman misses out on some of the revealing anecdotal information Snowden offers up in his memoir. Snowden comes from Mayflower stock; his forebears fought in the Revolutionary Wars, and afterward “abolished their family’s practice of slavery, freeing
their two hundred African slaves nearly a full century before the Civil War.” Gellman fails to consider the place of that sale or government “expropriation” (Snowden suggests), and how that legacy might have informed his whistleblowing when he sees the Constitution at risk. Gellman seems to miss the supreme irony of knowing that the headquarters of the NSA was built right there where that slave plantation used to be. Pass the fuckin’ bong.
As egregious a violation of the Bill of Rights that the NSA’s STELLARWIND program was, using sneaky backdoor tactics to get around the limits imposed by their agency mandate (“incidentally” gathering up the data of Americans in their cyber trawls of potential foreign “enemies” numbering in the millions), another program, PRISM, went even further, and gives the lie to alibi that such trawls are anything but criminal and totalitarian in intention. Gellman writes,
In film and fiction, the NSA mostly listened in on telephone calls. PRISM had capabilities far beyond that…NSA analysts could not only review stored account information but also dial in and record live “audio, video, chat, and file transfers.” Analysts could ask for instant notifications when their targets logged on to Hotmail or AOL or Yahoo Messenger.
And with keystroke exploits thrown in, “They can literally watch your thoughts form as you type,” Snowden told Gellman.
Ultimately, as Gellman alluded to earlier, it’s all about the power. In his chompy sit-down interviews with the likes of Michael Hayden and James Clapper, and other apologists for benign totalitarianism, Gellman makes it clear that these men see no room for oversight, and can’t or won’t comprehend the ethical and constitutional limitations to what they are doing. They just want us to trust them and narrow-visioned patriotism. This turned Snowden off to a career of public service (in which he was following in the footsteps of his deep state parents). In his memoir, he describes his in-office participation in LOVEINT —
in which analysts used the agency’s programs to surveil their current and former lovers along with objects of more casual affection—reading their emails, listening in on their phone calls, and stalking them online.
If you’re sensitive and thoughtful, and still can’t trust yourself around such technology, then who can you trust?
Well, ultimately, Gellman and Snowden don’t trust and reject the power argument — that because we have such technology at our disposal we must use it, the capability of knowing what everybody’s up to (except the Bastards in power, of course). We see the Brennans, Clappers, Haydens, Bushes, Obamas and Trumps just lie about their excesses. They conjure up a world of enemies — for the sake of using dreadful technology without concern for privacy or democracy. A fascist drift into a world of dystopian psychotronic nightmares ruled by algorithmically-generated tailored gargoyles intent on turning us into things. Dots. And ultimately, Dots. Right inside our heads.
I wouldn’t sleep and I took my mind
Lost all knowledge of time and kind
Been dead ——- 400 years (400 years, 400 years)
Wake up, hey (400 years, 400 years)
– Jimmy Cliff, “I’ve Been Dead 400 Years” (1977)
Peter Tosh has a new re-lease on life. Praise Jah!
It comes in the form of a children’s picture book — of all things! — just laid down next to the apples in the marketplace, simply titled African. The title comes from a Tosh song Equal Rights, his much-listened-to album from the heady ‘70s, rife with rasta music filling our pink Lefty ears with sugar plum fantasies of universal suffrage and equality, presided over, in joy, by His Majesty Haile Selassie, emissary of Jah on this loamy Earth. Pass da spliff, brudda. Forward and fiaca. Menacle and den gosaca.
The colorful book, illustrated by Rachel Moss, is part of the LyricPop series put out by the hip Brooklyn-based Akashic Books. The series includes (or will include) similar translations of songs like Good Vibrations, Respect, These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, and my anticipated favorite, Where Is My Mind? the Black Francis cult classic. Recently, they even had Samuel L. Jackson pitch in with some sound quarantine advice in the form of an illustrated poem titled, Stay the F— at Home!
Equal Rights (1977) was a follow-up to Tosh’s debut album the year before, the wildly popular Legalize It, which got him instant fame among the undergraduate activist set in America and into all kinds of legal problems back home. Reportedly he was the “victim” of police brutality, and his title song was banned from Jamaican radio, making it even more popular worldwide. Legalize It is part of the fantastic cornucopia of musical wares teeming from 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Sadly, Tosh died brutally in his own personal 9/11 at home in 1987.
Equal Rights was more in tune with the global vibe at the time to end racism everywhere, arguably, Tosh and Bob Marley leading the way, getting our feet moving to da riddim (sometimes against our will, it seemed). They were engineers on the freedom train that some rastas (and wannabes) argue set in motion, by means of emotion, the collapse of the official Apart-Hate regime in South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela.
Marley, Tosh and Jimmy Cliff pulled Jamaicans away from the service sector sounds of calypso (Nudda all-shook-up martini, suh? A Black waiter might have said to a sun-tanning Ian Fleming, who wrote some Bond 007 books there) and invited listeners to reconnect with their African roots. Beginning in 1600, the Spanish conquistadors began enslaving native Arawaks and virtually drove them to extinction with the introduction of European diseases. The Arawaks were replaced by West Africa slaves. And sugar (and rum!) began its sweet rise on the tooth and palate of Empire back in Britain and the American colony to the north, which would see slavery introduced 19 years later. Hello cotton! If not for cotton, there’d a-been no Che t-shirts to resist The Man with in the ‘80s.
Later, because the Mighty Whitey is so festive, and full of deviant ingenuity, the two commodities were combined and we had a go at eating cotton candy at county fairs. (No, just fucking wid ya.) Sugar went on to become the number one hit of all time — just check out the ingredients list of any food product in America today! (No, I’m not fucking wid ya this time.) Sugar was (and is) the oxycontin of the 17th century.
Equal Rights, following on the huge success of the cult film The Harder They Come in indie and university cinemas across America (good luck seeing the film through ganja smoke — fire code, my ass), galvanized and inspired white do-gooders (or wannabes) to fight back against Ronald Reagan’s new Cold War tactics (remember how giddy we got with the Star Wars program?!) and the trickle-down economics that GWH Bush called “voodoo” — incredibly ironical when he lost re-election and Bill Clinton backroom resident evil James Carville taunted him afterward with, “It’s the economy, stupid!” And then Carville’s boss proceeded to end welfare as we know it. Anyway, Marley, and Tosh got our feet moving, and that’s half the battle when trying to mobilize the masses. Dylan, song-and-dance man that he is, just can’t get our feet moving.
“African” is a wonderful song, and turning it into an appreciation of the African diaspora, for kids, is a cheeky and spectacular idea. Reinforce the notion early that they are a force to be reckoned with in this often-hallucinatory world. If they hear it enough times in childhood, then they’ll be ready for the attitudes later — Miles Davis: “I’m Black alright, they’ll never let me forget. I’m Black alright, I’ll never let them forget it.” And the cousin track from Sly and the Family Stone: “Don’t call me nigger, whitey. Don’t call me whitey, nigger.” On and on and on we go. We should be hugging each other, after Mandela was let loose on the world. But here we are again, all bebopping in Minneapolis, the Mighty Whitey in the White House with the black-chain-link fence implying the victims are terrorists.
Anyway, it’s a lovely song, fit for kids and adults alike, and goes something like this:
Don’t care where you come from,
as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African.
No mind your nationality,
you have got the identity of an African . . .
You will always have integrity, no matter your integument-y. Deep down in my dark white soul, I’d like to think I’m a little African. Rastafari!
Well, it remains to be seen if the song is legitimately effective as a sleeping agent. I guess if you read African as a poem, rather than cheating and playing the rhythm-inducing song off YouTube to the child, s/he may go to sleep — maybe counting Black people jumping fences to escape wolfish officers wearing dark glasses and fascist grins. But, if African is not effective, say your child is cholicy, Akashic Books has another Sam Jackson tale, Go the Fuck to Sleep.
Pass the bong, mon.
“Hell, you can’t get people to vote once, let alone twice.”
– Santiago Juarez, League of United Latin American Citizens
“Your chance of having your vote spoiled is 900% higher if you’re Black than if you’re white.”
– US Civil Rights Commission
We were warned about an imminent threat on Pearl Harbor before the attack. We were certainly warned about an imminent bin Laden-led attack before 9/11. Sadly, we were clearly alerted to the likelihood of a pandemic costing millions of lives, years before Covid-19. We’ve been told to expect a Pearl Harbor attack on the Internet, the global communication system gifted to the world by the Department of Defense. No conspiracy, no paranoia. Just the facts, ma’am, as Joe Friday used to say on Dragnet.
But nothing’s been more pearlharbored, especially since 9/11, than the electoral system that is the foundation of our once-exceptional democracy. Time after time, it’s been shown that voters are being disenfranchised on a massive scale; old machines continue to break down; newer machines, incomprehensibly, remain open to easy hacking. In 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2018, our state and national elections have been rigged, according Greg Palast, in his new book, How Trump Stole 2020: The Hunt for America’s Vanished Voters. And Palast shows us the Who, What, Where, Why, and When. Just the facts, ma’am. Then, Palast points to how, despite the disastrous disarray of his presidency, Trump and the Republicans will steal it again, if we let them. Basta! to that, warcries Palast.
Let’s look together: We continue to be plagued by racially-motivated violence; mass shootings in a land where there’s more guns (est. 400 million) than people; a homeless epidemic; dwindling healthcare, when the trend needs to be the opposite; public education that’s totally lost its way as a provider of critical thinking skills for the masses and preparation for autonomous university study; middle class people sliding into food stamp territory; valued jobs on the decline in a gig economy, in which many people need two jobs to survive; mortgages, rents gone unpaid; trillion dollar student debt, enforced by master credit reports that threaten ruin; and a two-party political system little more than a choice between the lesser of two evils. Never mind Covid-19 and climate change to follow.
These are some critical issues. And the only way they can be tackled is by electing genuinely gifted leaders with that vision thang, who can work with other such leaders, to pass the legislation required to tackle these issues. It is literally a matter of life-and-death for the Republic, and maybe even the planet. Without a functioning system in place to elect such leaders, we are doomed.
And Palast makes it clear that the 2020 presidential election is make or break, and while it’s tough enough imagining Joe “Ain’t Black” Biden as president, it’s impossible to see anything standing with four more years of Trump. Let’s not forget that from December 18, 2019 to February 5, 2020, the period when Covid-19 was just making its way around the world (21 nations infected by January 30, according to the CDC), but not yet in America, we were totally absorbed by the inane impeachment hearings — to the point that, by the end, everyone just wanted to chill out and watch the $500 million Super Bowl in Miami, where Covid-19 ejectile may have been as free-flowing as the beer in the stands, and acting as a staging point for its spread, as people returned home all over the country.
Over and over, year after year, Palast returns us to the scene of the electoral crimes. The mother of all of them was Florida 2000. Everything about the Florida election stank. Given that the state was governed by the Republican nominee’s brother, who had just prior to the election publicly “guaranteed” GWB’s victory, a recount should have been automatic, no Supreme Court needed. Then Secretary of State Katherine Harris, writes Palast,
flushed 97,000 voters from registration rolls—most of them Black—tagging them as felons, ex-cons, who can’t vote. In fact, the number of illegal ex-con voters? Zero.
(Not quite true, Greg: CREEP felon Charles Colson was allowed to vote.) Add lynching chads, voter ID laws, “disqualified” votes, uncounted provisionals, and lost mail-ins. What a mess. Then toss in Nader’s presence, and Gore’s inability to win Tennessee, his home state. Yuck. What did we step in?
Then we got totally disoriented by 9/11. By the time 2004 rolled around, we were deked and contused, and nobody seemed to care any more. Palast pointed out that John Kerry had had the presidency stolen from him:
…John Kerry lost the presidency by a few votes in Ohio. Kerry would have been president except that Black voters, some waiting 7 or 8 hours in the rain, found polling station doors closed in their faces at the 7:30 p.m. cut-off.
But with his trademark humor, Palast also points out that in Ohio 2004, exit polls showed that
John Kerry had won Ohio’s female voters 53% to 47%. Among male voters, Kerry won Ohio by 51% to 49%. But CNN’s exit polls of all voters showed Bush the winner in Ohio, and thereby the re-elected President. OK, class, what third sex put Bush over the top?
But that’s not all, in New Mexico, native American votes were ignored. “More ballots are spoiled or disqualified in pueblos and reservations than in any other community,” writes Palast.
In 2012, Fox analyst at the time Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s “brain” and tenderly referred to by the president as “Turd Blossom,” unwilling to accept Fox’s calling of the Ohio election for President Obama, and thus being re-elected, made a phone call, in a last-ditch effort to “disqualify” enough votes to reverse the count.
Rove knew, says Palast, that “early voters were not allowed to vote on regular ballots or on voting machines. Instead, they were handed an absentee mail-in ballot [application],” while they were at the polling station (!), and then handed a number and told to wait, like at a deli counter in supermarket, then took the application for an absentee ballot, filled it in, and posted it in a box, right there, at the polling station. Palast was curious:
I asked the County Clerk why voters were going through this mad rigmarole to get “absentee” ballots when they weren’t absent.
He said, “Because absentee ballots can be disqualified.”
And so it goes, as Linda Ellerbee used to say. Only a Palast-inspired court order averted Rove’s subterfuge. Basta!
Well, in 2016, we know what happened: The Russians stole the election for Donald J. Trump. Whoa, Nellie! “Kris Kobach was more responsible than any other person in America for putting Donald Trump into the White House,” writes Palast. The Secretary of State for Kansas Kris Kolbach (KKK?) declared that the electoral system was being over-run by doppelgängers intent on destroying America from within — by voting twice! (see opening quote) Employing a system called Interstate Crosscheck, which was adopted by 27 states, including the so-called swing states, which resulted in the purging of scores of registered voters.
Greg Palast is flabbergasted and angry. He writes of Kris Kobach that
By the time I shook his hand in 2016, one of his schemes—Crosscheck (we’ll get to that)—had already purged 1.1 million from the rolls, too many of them Black, Hispanic and Asian-American, quite silently, in Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and 26 other states, a stealth purge crucial to Trump’s victory.
Kobach is still at it with his purge lists and hoping to work with Trump in 2020. Ominously, Palast adds, “ In 2020, Kobach may choose our president for us again.”
But Kobach isn’t the only problem; swing state Wisconsin has had some serious voter issues, too. “In 2016, Trump officially won Wisconsin by a dinky 22,748 votes out of 3 million cast,” writes Palast. Had then-Governor Scott Walker not purged 182,000 student votes from the 2016 election, most of them overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning, then Trump would not be president. Walker has been ousted from office, but racist the Wisconsin Legislature has more than picked up the slack. At the end of 2019, they ended “Soul-To-the-Polls Day when most African-Americans vote.” No more early voting.
Palast said that he knew there was trouble in Milwaukee when he met with Sequanna Taylor, who told him she’d been purged from the voter registration rolls. This despite the inconvenient fact that she was Milwaukee’s County Supervisor. Palast adds, “Her name is on the ballot. Only a tip-off from a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter allowed her to save her right to vote for herself.” In all, the Legislature, so far, has managed to purge “232,597 voters from the rolls in 2020, ten times Trump’s 2016 margin.” Palast contacted Wisconsin’s Elections Commissioner Ann Jacobs who explained to him that the reason for the purges was simple:
This massive purge is clearly an attempt to gain an advantage in Wisconsin for the Republicans, particularly for the presidential race that’s coming up.
Apparently, swinging Wisconsin likes the swagger that comes with being the Big Cheese.
Palast puts special emphasis on what happened in Georgia in 2018. As corrupt as the system seems to many, even on the surface, what Brian Kemp did in Georgia breaks new ground. Serving as secretary of state, while running for governor, was entirely unethical and, given what he ended up doing, probably grounds for felony prosecution. As secretary, Kemp got to decide which votes counted, and which didn’t. When Stacey Abrams lost the gubernatorial race to Kemp, she refused to go the route of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton and merely accept the outcome. She started a non-partisan group called Fair Fight, who hired Palast’s investigative team to dig into “the math” of the purges.
They found that Kemp, employing the tactic of declaring people who had “moved” as scrubbable from the rolls, had led to thousands of suddenly disenfranchised people:
Of the half million voters Kemp purged for supposedly moving their residence, 340,134 had never moved an inch. But now, the Lenser team found nearly 100,000 more who had moved within their county—and therefore, they too should never have been purged. The total of wrongfully scrubbed voters was now over 400,000.
Palast is quick, however, to point out that Kemp borrowed this criminal idea (it’s literally a violation of the National Voting Registration Act of 1993) from Republican Secretary of State, Jon Husted of Ohio. And so successful has it been that this formula has been adopted by a cabal of Republican secretaries of states. In this way, writes Palast, “millions [have been] blocked from voting . . . and they don’t know it.”
But we needn’t delude ourselves into thinking it’s all about Republicans and their evil will-to-power shenanigans; Democrats can do the ‘ol you-call-that-a-noif routine just as well. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a campaign backer of both Clinton and Joe Biden, went to extraordinary lengths to fuck the 5.3 million young voters (mostly Latino) who chose to vote as independents (NPP) rather join the Democratic party. Why? They didn’t like the “lesser evil” offered up, and, in this instance, writes Palast, they overwhelmingly preferred “Tio Bernie” to Biden this year, “Tio Bernie” to Clinton in 2016.
Using the “disenfranchisement by postcard” method, just before Christmas last year, Padilla sent out cards to NPP voters. The cards were designed to look like “junk mail” and, writes Palast, “91% of voters threw them out.” Those who ‘got it’ had to go to a polling station and literally ask for a “Democratic Crossover” ballot. If they didn’t use that specific language. Poll workers were instructed not to help them. Other poll workers, writes Palast, were themselves confused by the process:
Many confused poll workers gave the NPP voters Democratic ballots, not ones marked “CROSSOVER,” not realizing that, in most counties, those ballots would be tossed out, disqualified.
Other ‘anomalies’ led to Sanders’ primary campaign being sabotaged by Party insiders determined to make sure Biden received California’s huge pot of electoral delegates.
And there are many other players that Palast names and excoriates. There’s Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s reduction of polling stations in Black precincts that led to looooooooooooong lines. There’s Hans “The Fox” von Spakovsky Prove-you-are-a-citizen game (BTW, Why is there a space between Lyons and Spikovsky? See film: Fallen). Kim Strach, North Carolina’s elections board director, favored “Ballot Harvesting”to cull undesired votes. GOP secretary of state Ruth Johnson blocked a hand count of 75000 votes that hadn’t been processed by broken scanning machines — which would have given Michigan to Clinton. Paul “The Vulture” Singer gutted the Voting Rights Act by lobbying with funds earmarked for cholera relief in Africa.
In a trustworthy political world, efficient, well-oiled machines could take the sinful, human factor out of the process that is, after all, the glue of a functioning democracy. But even here, we find failure. We keep using old voting machines (in minority areas) that we know will break down. But even newer machines are suspect. Palast didn’t cover it specifically, but “Voter Village” a September 2018 DefCon voter hacking event (it’s annual), ironically supported by Alex Padilla, found four key vulnerabilities: Supply Chain Insecurity (machine parts manufactured overseas could come pre-hacked; through compromised chips whole classes of machines could be hacked across the U.S., remotely, all at once ), Remote Attacks Proven, Hacking Faster Than Voting (in under 2 minutes), Hacks Don’t Get Fixed. Startling stuff, well worth reviewing.
In addition to all the wise and witty writing in How Trump Stole 2020, Palast pads the otherwise short book with three insertions: An Emergency Alert section (“Coronavirus Causes Outbreak of Mail-in Madness”) which warns readers that, in 2016, “512,696 mail-in ballots—over half a million—were simply rejected, not counted. That’s official, from the EAC.”; the second extra insert is an extended interview with Stacey Abrams regarding the 2018 Georgia debacle; and, my favorite, a 48-page Ted Rall comic book version of Palast’s detailed assertions, which is funny and spot-on — a great add-on to the book.
Palast is a hip guy, and he’s not afraid to let the reader know just how hip he is. He’s got a rip-snorting (at times) sense of humor, without allowing it to degrade his argument or observations. He is a former professor of statistics, which lends authority to his reads of numbers. He’s a former gumshoe. And he’s an award-winning journalist. Palast writes that Republicans have done everything they can since Eisenhower (remember that hilarious MIC warning he gave to the public in his last speech as president) to get in power and stay there — including stealing elections — because they see themselves as champions of the MIC and proud defenders of America’s manifest destiny. While Palast definitely blames Republicans for the current state of electoral disrepair, he boldly notes where Democrats, too, have let American democracy down.
As Palast sees it, the answer is Power; simple as that. The more power you have, the more you crave it, like greed; and as Nobel peace prize winner Henry Kissinger once said, power is “the ultimate aphrodisiac.” So, we don’t fix the dysfunctional system, and may even make it worse, because it suits the corruption it takes to keep hold of power. We’ve all watched enough West Wing and Veep and House of Cards to get a reinforced sense of how it is. Just Is, rather than justice.
And speaking of Henry Kissinger, it’s also worth remembering his infamous statement at a 1970 meeting of national security wonks, which became known as the Kissinger Doctrine:
I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.
In the end, Greg Palast makes it absolutely clear that Americans don’t need Russians to meddle with their elections and fuck up their democracy. They’re doing a swell job already. He says,
Did the Russians attempt to interfere? Yes, but about as effectively as a mosquito interfering with a Steph Curry three-pointer. A Russian oligarch spent a ginormous $150,000 on Facebook ads, about 1/10,000th of the $1.2 billion spent on pro-Clinton ads.
The Russians did it? Nyet.
The remedy to all of this, writes Palast, is to go after these lawless pols, by shaming them in the press, and show that their treasonous behavior is done without people knowing (it would be a revelation for citizens to understand that the vote they thought they cast was thrown away, behind their backs, by the orders of these slimesters). Don’t give up and stay home. Go out and vote — only once, of course.
Oh, and, Basta!
In Search of the Chosŏn People
by John Kendall Hawkins
When you go away
Sick of seeing me,
I shall let you go gently, no words.
From Mount Yak in Yŏngbyŏn
An armful of azaleas
I shall gather and scatter on your path.
Step by step away
On the flowers lying before you,
Tread softly, deeply, and go.
When you go away,
Sick of seeing me,
though I die; No, I shall not shed a tear.
– Kim Sowol, “Azaleas,” translated by David R. McCann
I can still recall the early morning cab ride I took many years ago in Daegu, South Korea. I was in a hurry, as usual; too much soju and kimchi the night before. On my way to the hagwan for the morning portion of my day-night split shift to teach EFL to busy university-aged students cramming in some English idioms seemingly between classes. It was the loneliest cab ride I’ve ever taken. No English spoken; I pointed to a map. The interior a shrine of talismans lit by a black light, a weird Wurlitzer melody and a voice of sorrow coming from the tape player, like an oriental version of “In Heaven” from David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Speaking of hung over idioms.
As you do in your travels anywhere, if you’re quiet enough, you let the “strange” culture in osmotically, and get an algorithmic feel for it over time. We’re 60% water from the culture we came from; by the time I left Daegu I was 60% Korean, by that measure. The rest I had to bring on board. People push and shove, masks worn everywhere, neon signs, musical language, sleepy Korean soldiers pouring from yellow buses, the sense of occupation. You remembered you were in a country still at war. And when you got tired of it, you found a way on to the American base, to buy Maxwell House and Gallo at the PX, hit the gym and library, and have brunch before the big screen with American sleepy soldiers. ‘Tired of it’ – the fucking moxie.
It wasn’t until years later, after I was out of Korea, one day poring over photo albums full of snapshots, that I began to more fully appreciate the culture I’d left behind, and thought about all the photo albums, smuggled out, full of our frameworks, our M*A*S*H* up of yet another client culture we don’t understand. I tried to keep this all in mind as I read Paek Nam-Nyong’s Friend: A Novel from North Korea. You go at it thinking you’ll be imparted some salving insight into the South’s mean-girl sister to the North, sulky and envious, in lieu of material conspicuity. Some urge to be rescued by the West; a hunger for Micky D’s. The bobbing bait of materialism on the surface of things.
But Korea for 500 years was culturally and socially unified under the Chosŏn Dynasty. Though a so-called client state of China during that time, Korea was politically autonomous; China was laissez-faire. Then in 1910, Japan colonized Korea until 1945, meeting underground resistance. During that Japanese occupation Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, was a Soviet-trained guerrilla leader known as “Tiger,” who led a series of effective tactical assaults. Japan had to cough up Korea at end of WW2, in a settlement involving the Soviets and Americans. When it became time to unify Korea, Kim Il-Sung held “free” elections that included no Southern representatives and proceeded to occupy all of the South, except the Pusan region. America/UN pushback ensued (see Korean War) and here we are.
Friend is an old book, first published in 1988 and previously translated into French and English. This edition, translated by Immanuel Kim for Columbia University Press, comes at a peculiar time in North Korean-American relations, and expresses a kind of hope that the Man Who Would Be King, Donald Trump, has counterintuitively created an atmosphere of negation with boy totalitarian Kim Jong-un. What wonderful times for global democracy, but we’ll take what we can get.
Kim tells us that the author, Paek Nam-Nyong, once belonged to the April 15th Literary Production Unit, a central task of which was to produce historical novels – The Year 1932, being one – extolling the heroic virtues Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il. By doing so, Nam-Nyong helped prop up the almost-caricaturistic, larger-than-life Kim personality cult that uneasily reminds one of Jimmy Jones and his Kool-Aid gang in Guyana. Also, an important lens to keep handy is that Nam-Nyong’s father was killed in an American bombardment of the North when he was a baby, and, growing up in poverty, he lost his mother to disease when he was 10 years old. He lives in Pyonyang today.
The Friend referred to, by the novel’s title, is one Jeong Jin Wu, a judge who specializes in divorce cases, and the odd off-cut case that gets to the heart of the DPRK’s social contract with astonishing clarity. Nam-Nyong opens the novel by suggesting to the reader that life is so calm and serene in a district of the city Kanggye in the 1970s that nobody really knows where the court is located. “Although the Superior Court handled unsavory civil and criminal cases,” Nam-Nyong’s 3rd person limited omniscient narrator tells us, “the monumental facade of the building gave an impression of both grandeur and quiet dignity.” In this sense, Judge Jeong Jin Wu represents the Court-as-Friend – there to quietly restore a sense of Confucian balance.
It’s a short novel, at about 200 pages, and yet Nam-Nyong manages to “say” the judge’s name some 621 times (I counted). The effect of the three stressed syllables – Jeong Jin Wu – is to reinforce the importance of this protagonist, not only as a subject-in-himself but a central representative of the socialist community. He’s a role player, and by the time we’re done with book, we see a society of role players. It would border on allegorical, if not for the fact that people actually live like this. (Remember our American communes in the ‘60s and the roles we played, rapping and freely sharing our naked love with each other? I do; I was in a poetry commune and coupled often.) Buddhists dig it.
Well, how does a ‘peaceable kingdom’ work? To work at all, it has to be all about works, and trappings of materiality have to be stripped down, desire put on a paleo diet, and consciousness focussed on the old yin and yang – balance for the many; it’s the way the emperor likes it. Sounds crazy and cartoonish, but you should hear what they say about capitalism. This is really a central theme of Friend. We don’t need no Koyaanisqatsi in our community. And the judge is there, a gentle Lefty arbiter, to restore the balance. True, he’s a little too Left, but the promise is that, in the end, like T.S. Eliot said at the end of Four Quartets, “All manner of things shall be well.”
Friend has three parts, Their Love, Two Lives and Family, and works its way through the process of becoming and unbecoming in the lives of Lee Seok Chun and Sun Hee, a couple with a young child, Nam Ho, who are seeking a divorce from each other. The whole of Friend is equal to the sum of these parts. Judge Wu listens patiently when Sun Hee, a leading mezzo-soprano for the Provincial Performing Arts Company. Meets with him in his court chambers to plead her case for the divorce. Wu tries to surmise the underlying issue:
Why does she want a divorce? Do she and her husband not have a good sex life? Judge Jeong Jin Wu thought. Or perhaps her husband is impotent. No, it can’t be that. She has a son.
Standard stuff everywhere.
It turns out to be a matter of irreconcilable differences. But it’s a society of reconciliation, and such differences, at least as far as Wu is concerned, need to be fleshed out and understood – possibilities other than divorce imagined. Wu is a sensitive soul who loses sleep over the discord of his supplicants. “Much like a fisherman trying to untangle knots in a fishing line, Jeong Jin Wu was upset by the burden of having to deal with another family’s misery,” the narrator tells us. Oh, what tangled webs we weave when we go and self-deceive, he seems to believe, but then what does Wu know, as Nam-Nyong puts the judge through some serious changes of his own, when we discover Wu, too, has marital difficulties. Spicy dramatic tension.
So, not only do we learn that the good judge has grown to resent his wife’s absence from home 20 days per month (following her bliss involves bringing her agricultural expertise to a mountain community far away, and forces the judge to do his own dishes). He also recalls a couple that he did divorce out of pity for the wife, once he discovers that the husband was willing to call her an adulterer (and destroy her reputation) to get a divorce.
This Korean Pilgrim’s Progress through the stages of discord back to balance involves other couples observed, too. And we meet an idealized couple, in the form of Eun Mi and her family. Sun Hee “envies” Eun Mi
because she was also a great singer and dearly loved her husband with the kind of innocence that had not yet seen the harrowing reality of married life. The couple’s intimacy was evident, and harmony dwelled in Eun Mi’s family.
This harmony, to Wu, a man who must weigh things in the great scales of district justice, his humble zone of local influence, is everything. He reinforces the value of these couplings by showing another couple – a nameless coal miner and school teacher, who are shown as hard-working and loving – whom he returns to a few times. In fact, as he does with Seok Chun and Sun Hee, he interferes, after judicial hours, in their marriage dialectics. For instance, with Seok Chun he will go the extra mile to a river and wade knee-deep to dredge up special sand for Seok to make a machine mold for a project that will advance his career – and maybe make Sun Hee happy and willing to drop the divorce. Later, he tries to talk the coal miner out of apparent incipient alcoholism, as he fears it will unbalance his now beautiful marriage.
Like the culture it comes from, the language in Friend is spare and unadorned and refreshingly clear. Like re-reading Hemingway after fucking around with Joyce’s islands in the stream of consciousness called Ulysses. Nam-Nyong’s characters’ thoughts, though complex, are not caught up in decorative expositions of wit, charm and intellectuality – because these are forms of excess subjectivity and materiality (celebrations of desire that lead to problems in a society bent on egalitarianism). So, then.
Nam-Nyong achieves this effect in two instances where he has remembrances of love’s eruption, leading to proposals and a marriage contract. First, we hear some of Seok’s thoughts about his infatuation with Sun Hee as he meanders through the pouring rain:
Seok Chun meandered as though intoxicated and, struggling to keep his balance, proceeded in despair. Suddenly he fell into a ditch, a booby trap set by the neighborhood kids. Seok Chun lifted his head and saw on the path the silhouette of a woman holding an umbrella against the dim dormitory lights.
In the shadow of the umbrella, Seok Chun saw the face of Sun Hee.
Then, in the factory, Seok Chun is so infatuated that he literally tunes into the machine she operates: “Amid the noise of all the running machines, Seok Chun was able to distinguish the sound of the friction press that Sun Hee operated.” You can’t manufacture this kind of love.
Not long after reading aloud a legalistic thesis on marriage through history to a group of comrades, he is offered tender, private advice by Eun Ok who admires his intellect, and he, in return, her beauty. Early in his courting days with Eun Ok, he, a well-grounded judge, has his emoceanal waters moved by her lunar persuasion:
Eun Ok walked beside Jeong Jin Wu with an arm wrapped tightly around his. She was jubilant, her face gleaming like majestic snowcapped mountains. Simply gazing at Eun Ok’s radiant face and lustrous eyes [earlier, Nam-Nyong had described Sun Hee exactly the same way] made Jeong Jin Wu ecstatic. The ice crunched under the feet of the two lovers treading on the snowy path. The brisk morning breeze had become calm, and the sky was clear. The silver clouds receded from the snowcapped mountains into the far distance.
They looked at each other in silence, the kind of silence that had existed before the universe was formed.
While it lasts, love is a many splendored thing indeed, but soon, too soon, it seems, the tide goes out on moony love: “Time had passed. Marriage had not been an enchanting reverie but a harrowing reality.”
Nam-Nyong uses naturalistic, almost animistic descriptors at times. Forces of nature express anthropomorphic interest in the lovers described. This, too, seems to be a cultural phenomenon. “Azaleas,” the poem by Kim Sowol quoted above, was written in 1919, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. On one level it suggests a broken love, a woman wanting to move on with her life, with the retired lover strewing azaleas at her feet as she goes, rather than tears. This motif is taken up in Friend, as each of the marriages presented is rattled by independent-minded females. On another level, it seems to speak to what David R. McCann calls “the resigned sadness of the Korean people.” (It’s worth noting that azaleas contain a dangerous psychotropic rhodotoxin, derived from a plant native to Japan.)
One other aspect of Friend that is cleverly achieved is Nam-Nyong’s depiction of children and, consequently, family. The thought that disturbs Judge Jeong Jin Wu most is how broken marriages will affect the children. Nam-Nyong stages these effects by showing how the merged loved of their relationship (the children) are virtually forgotten about as squabbles lead to violent existential outbursts. Thus, one night, Seok Chun and Sun Hee, after a spat, neglect their son: “They had turned off the lights to go to sleep many hours ago, but Ho Nam sat between his parents, between the two rooms, amid the tense atmosphere, completely alone and dejected.” (It also pictured “a lost generation” stuck in a DMZ, longing for reunification.)
Children come across as coddled imps with, if all is in balance, an open future. Children are expressive in Friend. Seok Chun wandering aimlessly, love-smitten, falls into a “boobytrap” set randomly by such imps. Later, as the judge is walking along, kids run into him, and he almost loses his balance. Even Ho Nam tells Chae Rim, Sun Hee’s divorce-supporting cousin, to get lost and throws a bean sandwich at him. This strikes one as humorous – as does a scene with a forklift where a workman with blueprints presumptuously hops on for a ride and is “almost” deposited into a lathe to the female driver’s delight.
One last bit Nam-Nyong plays us with is the witty (well, I laughed) depiction of a very serious crime – a felony that a worker commits at a manufacturing facility that you would not conceive in the West:
The director of the City Electricity Distribution Company had designed an electric blanket for personal use and had been using it without permission from the government. This was considered a felony, as the entire country was trying to conserve energy. He was not an ordinary citizen, but the director of the very institution whose priority was the conservation of energy. For this reason, he was going to receive a severe sentence. It was not simply a crime of wasting energy, but a crime of selfishness and greed. Electricity was more precious than money or any other commodity because it was the property of the nation.
For those of us steeped in cultures of conspicuous consumption this is numbing news, but pretty well sums up the purported ethic of the North Korean regime and socialism in general.
All in all, Friend is a tight, well-written staging of the so-called Juche political philosophy of independence and self-reliance that wants to be the soul of the North Korean regime. As Immanuel Kim puts it in the Afterword,
Friend is set during the Hidden Hero campaign of the 1980s, which sought to recognize the extraordinary achievements of otherwise ordinary citizens… The trend in fiction of this period was to delineate a new class of intellectual heroes who improved social conditions with their brainpower rather than their brute strength.
It’s a signal of some sort; maybe a booby trap for our trapped booby in the White House. We ain’t all about the missiles, could be one read. Who knows?
It seems that Paek Nam-Nyong, whose fame came with earlier Kim family novels, is being called upon again to burnish Kim Jong-un’s reputation. The question is for what purpose releasing a thirty year old narrative. Unlike other books written by defectors from the regime, Kim points out, “Friend is unique in the Anglophone publishing landscape in that it is a state-sanctioned novel, written in Korea for North Koreans, by an author in good standing with the regime” As usual, time will tell whether there is any other import beyond the narrative’s literary value, of which there is plenty. Kim’s dedication page is a nice way to feel the sentiment expressed in Friend. He writes: “For my wife, my comrade, my friend, Angela Kim.”